U.S. seeks China's help on N. Korea

Goal to press Pyongyang into killing weapons effort

Bush, Jiang meeting in Texas

President may bid revival of arms talks with Beijing

October 25, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After 18 months in which the United States and China veered from mutual distrust to cooperation, President Bush will put the warming relations to a strategic test today, when he will ask China to put pressure on North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons development.

Playing host at his Texas ranch to the soon-to-retire President Jiang Zemin of China, Bush is expected to offer a sweetener in return: a resumption of high-level defense talks that were suspended after China detained the crew of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet in April last year.

U.S. officials view China as vital to bringing a peaceful end to the latest crisis with North Korea, which stunned the world this month by acknowledging that it was trying to produce highly enriched uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons, in violation of agreements barring nuclear weapons development.

Bush hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis with North Korea, to avoid a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. About 37,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea, close to the border with the North.

China, which shares a long border with North Korea, has been a close ally of Pyongyang and a key supplier of food and fuel to the Stalinist dictatorship. But U.S. officials say China shares Washington's fear that North Korea will become a nuclear power. They want Beijing to make clear to Pyongyang that it won't succeed in dividing the international community.

"We hope they condemn it and call for it to be ended and verifiably disassembled," a senior administration official said yesterday.

After meeting with Jiang, Bush will travel to a summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. At that summit, the concerns surrounding North Korea are expected to dominate a meeting tomorrow that Bush will have with President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.

Bush's efforts to produce a united front of the Pacific allies and China against North Korea has yet to produce results. Though all those nations oppose Pyongyang's nuclear program, they have not agreed on a plan to exert pressure on the reclusive North Korean regime.

Japan has taken the first concrete step. It has said that a gradual normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang depends on North Korea's abiding by its international commitments on nuclear weapons. Normal ties could be a financial windfall for North Korea: Japan has held out the possibility of economic benefits worth billions of dollars.

Kim of South Korea appears intent on expanding his country's economic links to the North as part of his "sunshine" policy of deeper engagement with Pyongyang. South Korea also opposes abandoning the economic sweeteners contained in the 1994 accord negotiated by the United States and North Korea.

The accord calls for the United States, Japan and South Korea to supply North Korea with two comparatively weapon-proof nuclear reactors, largely paid for by Tokyo and Seoul. The United States would provide Pyongyang with a half-million gallons of heavy fuel oil a year for those reactors.

While saying the 1994 accord is effectively dead, the Bush administration says it has not decided whether to scrap the reactor and fuel-oil deals.

A White House official said Bush would not go into the meetings today and this weekend with a specific plan that he wants the other leaders to endorse. "He's going to talk and listen," the official said. Sunday, when the Pacific summit is to end, "may be too soon" for all the countries to agree on a joint plan, the official said.

Analysts cautioned against expecting China to join in a public campaign against North Korea in lockstep with the United States. Beijing would prefer to exert pressure "very subtly, their way, with very little evidence of it," said James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China.

An immediate source of leverage, he said, is the price China charges North Korea for food and fuel.

The Bush team entered office with a tougher stance toward China than that of the Clinton administration, with Bush vowing to defend Taiwan against any Chinese assault. Relations soured further when China detained the crew of the U.S. spy plane.

But the peaceful end to that episode began an upswing in relations, which have improved since China began cooperating with the United States in the campaign against international terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Until recently, the Pentagon had resisted pressure from the White House to resume the high-level defense talks with China that were begun during the Clinton administration. Military officials complained that the talks offered China far more information on American capabilities than the United States learned about China's.

But yesterday, the Pentagon said that progress in the overall U.S.-China relationship "supports having a strategic policy dialogue between our two militaries."

"Particularly in the past year, we've seen the emergence of serious challenges to global peace and stability," said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis. "A strategic dialogue with China would be useful."

If such talks resume, they are likely to be more of a two-way street than in the past, said retired Rear Adm. Eric A. McVadon, a former U.S. defense and naval attache in Beijing. "The Chinese have gotten the message on reciprocity."

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