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China edges away from Iraq; stance still ambiguous
BEIJING - As the United States and Great Britain lobby other members of the United Nations Security Council to support strong measures against Iraq, China has remained publicly ambiguous about its position - a stance pleasing so far for the Bush administration.
A British envoy discussed Iraq with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials yesterday, and the government's noncommittal rhetoric has subtly shifted toward emphasizing the need for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime to cooperate with the United Nations.
"In the last few weeks there's been a noticeable distancing in Beijing from Iraq," a Western diplomat here said yesterday on the condition of anonymity. "The Chinese have had a much more carefully modulated neutrality."
A signed editorial last week in the English-language China Daily urged Iraq to allow weapons inspections. Although the article did not voice support for the United States or military action, it declared, "This is the last chance for Saddam Hussein to deprive the Americans of a legal case against himself."
Speaking last week in Paris, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned the United States not to act militarily against Iraq without the backing of the Security Council. But Zhu implied that China could be open to the United Nations granting the authority to use force: "If the weapons inspections do not take place, if we do not have clear proof and if we do not have the authorization of the Security Council, we cannot launch a military attack on Iraq," Reuters quoted Zhu as saying.
The subtle turning point in China's thinking was apparently President Bush's speech to the United Nations last month, which allayed fears that the United States had already decided to proceed unilaterally toward war.
Another key factor might have been the Bush administration's decision in August to designate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an obscure group backing Muslim separatists in northwest China's Xinjiang province, as a terrorist organization. That was followed by a successful U.S.-backed effort to add the same group to the U.N. global watch list of terrorist organizations.
William Ehrman, Britain's director general of defense and intelligence in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, met yesterday for 90 minutes with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya.
"We briefed the Chinese on our thinking about the draft Security Council resolution on Iraq and discussed it with them," said British Embassy spokesman Alex Pinfield. "The Chinese took it away to study in greater depth and reflect on the discussions."
Describing China's stance, the official New China News Agency said Wang stressed "that Iraq should comprehensively and strictly implement the relevant U.N. resolutions."
"The Chinese side would continue to make joint efforts with other members of the Security Council to push for a political resolution within the U.N. framework," the news agency reported.
Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, meanwhile, conferred by telephone Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the agency said. Tang emphasized that "the top priority" was getting weapons inspectors into Iraq "at an early date."
Until now, officials here have emphasized the importance of state sovereignty, a sensitive point for a nation keen on keeping foreign governments at arm's length from its own internal affairs.
And, they have urged that international disputes be resolved through the United Nations, an arena where China holds significant sway.
"The U.N. framework is vitally important to China because it has veto power at the Security Council and, by urging the U.S. to work within the U.N. framework, it can help tame the sort of American unilateralism that it and most others are uncomfortable with," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.
Yet to this point, China's leaders have not addressed how they would use the nation's vote on the Security Council when a resolution comes before it.
"That's the Chinese way. They keep things very, very quiet," said the Western diplomat interviewed here yesterday. "The Chinese much prefer smoky rooms for negotiations. They like the quiet diplomacy where people sit behind closed doors and thrash out their position. China very rarely takes a forward position on these kinds of issues."
Experts say China is also remaining noncommittal as it works to extract concessions from the United States for a likely abstention. China has exercised its Security Council veto the least of any of the five permanent members - only four times in 30 years- but merely the power to veto itself is effective leverage. China proved the same a decade ago, before the first war with Iraq.
"This is reminiscent in many ways of how China conducted its diplomacy in 1990," said James Mann, author of About Face, a history of U.S.-China relations from Nixon to Clinton. "When the Bush administration began to look for support for its [Persian] Gulf War resolution, China held out for concessions from the United States."
"The bargaining is comparable now," Mann continued. "China is exercising its diplomatic power as a permanent member of the Security Council."
China is looking for altogether different rewards. In 1990, China sought to re-establish high-level meetings with the United States and other major powers, a year after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
Now, China is in a far more confident position globally - this month, President Jiang Zemin makes his third visit to the United States - and its needs are different. For example, the listing of ETIM might have been one concession.
"I don't know what else they're looking for," Mann said, then speculated, "For example, Jiang Zemin is coming to the United States [this month], and they may be looking for some new statement on Taiwan."