China keeping its focus inward on Korea, Iraq

Taking a cautious stance, Beijing aims to preserve stability at home, abroad

March 11, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Thanks to its border with North Korea and veto power in the United Nations Security Council, China has the ability to play key roles in shaping actions against North Korea and Iraq. But it has adopted a cautious stance designed to preserve stability both abroad and at home.

If the Security Council votes on a U.S.-sponsored resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force against Iraq, China is expected to abstain. On the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, China has limited itself to saying it favors direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang to assure a non-nuclear North Korea.

"As far as questions like the veto or questions of really using her economic or military muscle, I think China will confine her efforts only to questions concerning her security directly," said Pan Shaozhong, a Beijing scholar who has taught at the Foreign Affairs College here. "Even though China may have deeply felt and strongly held views on issues like Iraq, China will not use her veto.

"What is utmost in the minds of Chinese leaders is to try to guarantee a kind of peaceful international environment so that China can concentrate on her own modernization program."

Relations with the United States have become an integral part of that calculation. The United States is a key trading partner, major source of investment and now a convenient ally in efforts against terrorism. As a result, China has opposed aggressive actions against Iraq and North Korea while trying not to directly oppose the United States.

France, Germany and Russia issued a joint statement last week on their opposition to the immediate use of force against Iraq. Chinese President Jiang Zemin responded by having a phone conversation with French President Jacques Chirac, an understated show of support that doesn't portend a Chinese veto in the Security Council.

"There's no need to veto and incur American anger needlessly," said James Mann, author of About Face, which chronicles Sino-U.S. relations in the Nixon to Clinton administrations.

Jiang repeated his opposition to war in a telephone conversation Sunday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he spoke yesterday with President Bush. But diplomats and analysts here noted that China was usually content to allow other permanent Security Council members - in this case France - to wage its battles.

"Although China is 100 percent morally on the side of France and Russia, China doesn't really want to obstruct America openly on this question," Pan said.

China has shown even greater caution in dealings with North Korea, which test-fired a medium-range missile yesterday and has accused the United States of planning a nuclear attack. China has yet to alter its reserved public approach of merely encouraging dialogue.

Bush has said China must be involved in a regional approach toward North Korea, but China has maintained that the United States and North Korea engage each other directly, in part to make sure that Washington deals with Pyongyang's security concerns. But China's refusal to increase pressure on North Korea is clearly beginning to frustrate the United States and South Korea.

"Right now the focus is not the U.S. We have to focus on the Chinese government," said Syung Je Park, deputy director of the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul. "The Chinese government is doing the right thing to talk with North Korea, but now the Chinese government has to go one more step again, which is not only official talks and high-level talks, but publicly, they have to say to North Korea, `Don't develop nuclear weapons.'"

If that fails to change North Korea's behavior, he said, China's leaders should "show they are sincere" by halting fuel oil shipments that are critical to the North Korean regime.

Analysts here assert that the Chinese government is exerting as much influence as it can. China has said publicly that it wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and specialists argue that tough tactics will be counterproductive with Pyongyang.

"Especially with North Korea, an Asian country, applying a lot of pressure to force them to do something will often end up with bad results," said Zhang Liankui, a professor of international relations at the influential Central Party School in Beijing. If China were to cut off aid to North Korea, he said, it would lose its "special influence" with North Korea.

"China is still doing things through its own channels," Zhang said. "Some efforts may be reported in newspapers. Some efforts may be ongoing and not reported. The communication channel between China and North Korea is still open. And this means China still has special influence on this issue."

China also opposes sanctions because they could cause the demise of a regime on its border, potentially leading to a flood of refugees. "The worst thing that we could see as a country is the North Korean government overthrown, in chaos and millions of people trying to flee the country," Pan said. "We don't want that."

But there are signs of shifting attitudes in academic circles and within party ranks.

In an article in the government-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao, Shi Yinhong, a leading Beijing scholar in international relations, suggested that China should re-evaluate its longstanding security assumptions and begin to view a nuclear North Korea as a destabilizing threat. He said in an interview later that if North Korea had the bomb, it could "blackmail" its old ally China for aid just as easily as it could extort others in the region.

On Iraq, academics are engaged in an active debate, with groups of leading scholars taking up public positions both for and against an Iraq war.

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