China will "Stand Aside" on Iraq
Last Wednesday, after Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan had
completed his response to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's
historic indictment of Iraqi duplicity at the United Nations
Security Council, he discreetly signaled to his U.S. counterpart.
The American nodded. As the two men walked out of the council
chamber to lunch, Mr. Tang tugged aside Mr. Powell and in less than
a minute conveyed a message from Beijing: As Chinese President
Jiang Zemin had reassured U.S. President George W. Bush last
October at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, China would "stand
aside" on the Iraq issue at the U.N.
Mr. Powell expressed his appreciation for the message. Just a few
hours later, however, he learned that the Chinese foreign minister
had also sidled up to the French Foreign Minister Dominique de
Villepin and praised France's stance of calling for "more time" as
strong and principled -- and one which Beijing supports.
What is China's position? For that matter, what is France's?
Evidently, they don't actually have a fixed position. And China, at
least, is signaling it will go along with the majority position in
the Security Council -- whatever that may turn out to be.
In a phone call with Mr. Bush on Friday night, Mr. Jiang stressed
the need "to safeguard the Security Council's authority when
dealing with significant issues like the Iraq issue." And the
Chinese president said Iraq "had an obligation to respond to the
problems" that have arisen during the weapons inspection and
"should cooperate more actively on its own initiative with the
Speaking during last Wednesday's Security Council session, Mr. Tang
had insisted that "as long as there still is the slightest hope for
a political settlement, we must exert our utmost effort to achieve
that." But reading between the Chinese lines in the wake of his
damning indictment of Iraq's continuing refusal to disarm, Mr.
Powell interpreted this as meaning Beijing accepted any such hope
for a political settlement had already evaporated. Mr. Tang's
subsequent reassurance to Mr. Powell only reinforced this
Although China has never had a particularly close relationship with
Iraq, Baghdad was a multibillion-dollar customer for Chinese arms
during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. And prior to Sept. 11, 2001,
Chinese firms had $80 million in telecommunications contracts with
Iraq, not counting a $25 million fiber-optic upgrade contract for
Iraq's military communication networks which the U.S. pressured
Beijing to abandon. As recently as the summer of 2002, a Chinese
state-run company was negotiating with an Iraqi missile factory to
sell nitric acid, a chemical used in missile fuel.
Nonetheless, Beijing has no real stake in Iraq, beyond a concern
that overthrowing Saddam Hussein should not serve as a precedent
for American-led regime changes in China's sphere of influence --
namely North Korea. While China has consistently called for the
lifting of U.N. sanctions and extolled its long friendship with
Iraq, as early as last summer Mr. Tang made a point of warning
Baghdad to "strictly implement U.N. Security Council resolutions"
in order to avoid "the emergence of new complexity with the Iraq
Western news reports claiming Beijing opposed the use of force were
based on a failure to appreciate the subtly of Mr. Tang's language.
All the Chinese foreign minister actually said last summer was that
Beijing "did not approve" of the use of force and opposed "the
arbitrary expansion of the war on terror." Behind the scenes, the
message Beijing sent Baghdad was that Iraq had brought its problems
on itself and, while China might not "approve" of the use of force,
it would not oppose a U.N. resolution authorizing such force
because such a resolution would, by its nature, not be
China is particularly concerned not to threaten its increasingly
important economic ties with the U.S. by antagonizing Washington
over Iraq. The U.S. is China's largest export market, worth well
over $100 billion per year. Nor does it want to jeopardize the Bush
administration's support for Chinese efforts to counter the threat
posed by militant Islamic groups, such as the Eastern Turkestan
Islamic Movement, which operate in the far-western border region of
None of this means China is likely to give direct support to
military action. Beijing is more likely to pursue a policy similar
to the one it followed before the first Gulf War. In 1990 and 1991,
China abstained in U.N. Security Council votes on Iraq. There is
every indication that it will do the same now, particularly if
France and Russia decide not to vote against military action.
That is becoming an increasingly likely possibility, at least as
far as Paris is concerned. The buzz among U.S. State Department
officials is that the French are preparing to fall in line.
The deployment Tuesday of the French nuclear-powered aircraft
carrier Charles de Gaulle from its home port of Toulon for
exercises in the eastern Mediterranean is one indicator of French
preparations for war. The day after Mr. Powell's speech, the
influential French newspaper Le Parisien ran as its banner
headline, "France -- a Step Towards War," and Mr. de Villepin said
during a radio interview Thursday morning that France did not rule
out the use of force.
After all the anti-American sound and fury emanating from Paris
over the past year, France is setting the stage for a dramatic
volte face. French strategists increasingly take the view that a
war against Iraq is inevitable, and want to disprove U.S. Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's humiliating reference to France being
part of "old Europe."
If it does take part in a war, Paris will fight primarily to secure
its long-term economic and strategic interests in the region. In
addition, as a fading power still clinging to its Gaullist
delusions of grandeur, France hopes to use the conflict to enhance
its position on the world stage.
But unlike China, France has been uncharacteristically helpful in
Washington's other disarmament effort -- North Korea. On Jan. 10,
France "condemned" Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons ambitions, and
warned that the North Korean action was "heavy with consequences
that must be dealt with by the United Nations Security
When Mr. Powell met with Mr. Tang on Tuesday afternoon before his
Security Council speech, he focused, not on Iraq, but on North
Korea. Mr. Powell declared North Korea a global concern and pointed
to Mr. Tang asking, "What are you going to do about it?" The
Chinese response, as always, was to shrug their shoulders and
insist China has no influence with Kim Jong II.
Time and again, China has shown that it will neither condemn,
pressure nor sanction North Korea. The most China will do is
nothing. When U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton was in
Beijing on Jan. 20, he pressed China on the need to take North
Korea's numerous treaty violations to the Security Council. But all
he could report after his meeting was that he didn't "detect any
Now that is about to be put to the test. After several delays, on
Wednesday the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors
will finally receive a report from its director general, Mohammed
ElBaradei, on Pyongyang's recent resumption of activity at its
nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The chair of the agency's board of
governors, Nabeela Al-Mulla, then intends to swiftly refer the
North Korean issue to the U.N. Security Council, where the plan now
is to draw up an initial resolution that contains no mention of
The intention is to avoid bringing the North Korean crisis to a
head, while smoking out China's positions on Pyongyang's nuclear
ambitions. The assumption is that neither Beijing nor Moscow would
be able to object to a mildly worded resolution and, by not
objecting, will be committing themselves to something considerably
tougher after Saddam has been overthrown and the focus moves to
As the U.S. -- with the support of the United Kingdom -- prepares
to lead what may become the largest coalition ever assembled to
remove a dictator from power, China and France face a clear choice:
Either they veto military action against Iraq and obstruct economic
sanctions on North Korea, in which case they will gravely
jeopardize not only the future of the Security Council but also
their relations with Washington; or they can simply do the minimum
possible to support the U.S. and its allies, by standing aside and
abstaining in any U.N. vote.
France, of course, is likely to use its support on the Korean front
as a bargaining chip for a greater say in Iraq. China, on the other
hand, is giving every indication that it will simply "stand
Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in
Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service
who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei. Dr.
Gardiner is a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy
at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal