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China Is Wary of Toeing the U.S. Line

February 24, 2003|Sonni Efron and Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began meetings today with top Chinese leaders, hoping to put a lid on the North Korean nuclear crisis and garner support for military action against Iraq, he faced an uphill struggle with China on both fronts.

As the talks opened today, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan was asked whether the discussions would be difficult.

"Diplomatic talks have never been easy," he said.

The U.S. would like China to support a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing war on Iraq -- or at least not veto the measure. Powell had been expected to discuss how the Security Council can stand by its resolutions to disarm Iraq.

So far, however, China has sided with France, favoring more time for U.N. weapons inspections.

Washington would also like Beijing to step up pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs. Although China has said it supports a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and recently backed efforts to refer Pyongyang's violation of a nuclear treaty to the Security Council for action, "they can do more," a senior administration official said Sunday.

Economic sanctions or military measures to prevent North Korea from exporting nuclear material -- a nightmare scenario for Washington -- would be difficult to enforce without active Chinese support.

There was no immediate word as to whether the Chinese were softening their opposition, but the diplomatic banter could not have been more friendly. Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao recalled that during their last meeting, Powell had offered to show the Chinese leader around his native New York City and buy him a hot dog on the street.

"Next time I visit the U.S., I am looking forward to that day," Hu said.

Beijing is a key ally of Pyongyang's, but the Chinese have said they have limited influence on the North. Beijing's reluctance to play a more active role has left the impression that China won't risk a complete breach with its neighbor even if nuclear weapons are at stake.

In the Korean War, China sent troops across its border to help fellow Communists fight U.S. and South Korean troops. But the China-North Korea relationship has become more complicated in recent decades.

As Beijing begins to benefit from South Korean investment and closer political ties with Seoul, propping up the failing North Korean state, which rejects Chinese-style economic reforms, is less attractive. Yet China does not want to appear overly hostile or push its neighbor into economic collapse. China is already struggling to fend off a flood of refugees from the impoverished, isolated state.

The day before Powell arrived in Beijing, Foreign Minister Tang met with North Korea's No. 2 official, Kim Yong Nam, and pledged to boost their nations' friendship, the official New China News Agency reported.

"China attaches vital importance to the traditional China-D.P.R.K. friendly cooperative ties and will push ties forward to achieve new progress," Tang was quoted as saying, using North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The two men reportedly exchanged views on the situation on the Korean peninsula, but details of the discussions were not disclosed.

"There is no reason to doubt China is sincere. They want North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons," said Richard Baum, a China expert at UCLA. "But they are not going to stick their neck out. They have a relationship with North Korea that goes back decades. They can't put on the thumbscrews the way we can."

Iraq -- while farther away -- poses a similar dilemma for Beijing.

On the one hand, China cannot support in principle the American notion of preventive war against Iraq. Beijing is worried about endorsing any action that appears to undermine a country's sovereignty. If Washington could topple the regime in Baghdad, the Chinese may wonder, what would prevent it from calling the shots on Taiwan and Tibet, two areas that Beijing asserts are part of China. Those claims have been a source of major friction between Washington and Beijing.

But on the other hand, China has sided squarely with the United States in its war against terrorism and wants to avoid being branded an ally of what President Bush has labeled the "axis of evil."

"China does not want to be seen as just like Iraq, Iran and North Korea," said Peter Gries, a China expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "China wants to be seen as a responsible part of the global community, part of the solution, not the problem."

In those segments of Washington where suspicions of Chinese intentions continue to run deep, some wonder why the Bush administration appears to have placed so much emphasis on China's role in reining in North Korea when U.S. success could leave America standing tall in East Asia. Those observers ask: Would China not prefer to see a fumbling United States that looks like a less-than-reliable guarantor of peace and stability in East Asia, ultimately weakening its ties with other Asian allies?

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