February 12, 2003

February 12, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

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 United Nations."

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 impression.

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 issue."

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 "arbitrary."

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 Xinjiang.

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 Council."

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 substantial opposition."

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 sanctions.

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 North Korea.

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 aside."

Mr. 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.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal