Tue, Apr 01, 2003 - Page 8 News List

US grapples with its China policy

By Sushil Seth

With all the drama surrounding Iraq and North Korea, Beijing looks like a cool customer. On Iraq, it quietly backed the French and German line to give international inspectors more time before the war. But, at the same time, it kept Washington hopeful that it might jump off the fence to support US-led military action or, at the very least, abstain on the second resolution.

On North Korea, Beijing is letting the Americans know that it is exerting quiet pressure on Pyongyang on the nuclear question, and is unhappy that Washington is not appreciative of its efforts.

On Taiwan, it appears that Beijing is planting press reports about progressively cutting its missiles directed across the Taiwan Strait.

The cumulative message appears to be that China is seeking to maintain its `strategic partnership' with the US. Taiwan, obviously, remains a major hurdle, with the US committed to its security in the event of a Chinese invasion. Washington is encouraging Taiwan to beef up its defenses, urging it to buy more advanced weapons because "surprise and speed will be used [by China] to make any potential assistance to Taiwan [by the US] in an unprovoked attack ineffective."

The reports about China thinning out its missile concentrations aimed at Taiwan must be read in this context. Beijing seemed to be saying to Washington that it has no intention to attack Taiwan, though it would refuse to go on record. The US should, therefore, curtail its arms sales to Taipei. In that case, Beijing might be cooperative in other areas, like Iraq and North Korea. On Iraq, for instance, there is political polarization between the "coalition of the willing," on one side, and France, Germany and Russia, on the other. Beijing might easily tilt toward the US to shore-up a "strategic partnership," which, in turn might give it the necessary leverage to influence the US policy on Taiwan, starting with some curbs on arms sales.

On North Korea, Beijing is in an even better position. Pyongyang is overwhelmingly dependent on Beijing for its economic lifeline, thin as it is. Imagine: China becoming part of an international sanctions regime to strangle its neighbor. True, this could provoke Pyongyang into some dangerously crazy adventure but at the cost of its imminent total destruction. Even its dear leader, Kim Jong-il, might not be too keen to make a radical move.

China, in a sense, is the Stalinist state's ultimate protector. Any drastic military action designed to bring down the last Cold War remnant will have to reckon with Beijing's unpredictable response. And if the Korean War is any guide, China might find itself, wittingly or unwittingly, drawn into a repeat of the last action -- this time with even more dangerous consequences. But if China were acting in concert with the US, it could manage the Korean imbroglio with greater dexterity. And this would enhance its influence with the US and regionally.

It has its own downside, though. As Hugh White, an Australian defense analyst, has pointed out, "Washington must be anxious about the [long-term] implications of normalization [on the Korean Peninsula] for the future of the US strategic footprint in North-East Asia. If tensions with North Korea reduce, Seoul will expect US military deployments in their country to be cut substantially" with its ripple effect on Japan. In that case, China alone might emerge with enhanced status and clout regionally by undercutting the US role.

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