by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING --
that China is now much more capable of bringing strong counter-pressure at the UN Security Council, Washington has been pleasantly surprised to find that Beijing's position on strong measures against Iraq has been more flexible than it expected.
As one of the permanent Security Council members wielding veto power and one that traditionally opposes U.S. "hegemonism," China is a player that could still tip the balance on a tough resolution setting new terms for Iraq to disarm chemical or biological weapons.
China abstained on almost all votes on the Iraq issue before the 1991 Gulf War and opposed sanctions on that country afterwards.
But while Beijing's stand may thus far be welcome news to Washington, the United States also has less leverage to exercise on China's decisions these days.
Ten years ago, for instance, China was seeking to repair damage to its international image in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and kept this in mind in its foreign policy.
A member of the World Trade Organization since December, China today need not worry about losing its special trade status, granted by the U.S. Congress, if its actions run against U.S. plans.
Yet so far, instead of attempting to boost its advantage and lash out against the United States -- whom it sees as an international bully -- during the last few weeks Beijing has been careful to display a moderate neutrality and distance itself from Saddam Hussein's regime.
Noticeably too, state media has been void of the usual condemnation of the U.S. belligerent policy of interference in the "internal affairs of other countries."
Instead, Beijing has opted to give wide coverage to both foreign and domestic opposition to Washington plans to invade Iraq. On Monday night, President George W Bush issued his latest warning against Iraq, saying it and its allies could take action "on any given day" even without a UN resolution that is still under discussion.
The foreign ministry has reiterated China's position against an invasion of Iraq and for a political solution to the crisis.
At the same time though, Beijing has received a British envoy that arrived with a mission to brief Chinese officials on the text of a draft resolution proposed by Washington to UN members.
Under the U.S. proposal, Iraq would have 30 days to provide comprehensive information on all aspects of its weapons development programme. The American draft calls for "use of all necessary means", widely believed to include an invasion, if the Security Council finds that Iraq gave false or inaccurate information or failed to comply with the conditions of the resolution.
Beijing has said it is willing to study a new Security Council resolution. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Tuesday that "the international community must be fair and objective in assessing Iraq's compliance with the resolutions".
A signed editorial in the official English-language newspaper 'China Daily' last month warned Saddam Hussein that time was running out. Although the article did not voice support for the Untied States or any U.S.-led military action, it declared: "This is the last chance for Saddam Hussein to deprive the Americans of a legal case against himself."
Beijing's subtle change of rhetoric reflects China's policy of sustaining good momentum in U.S.-China relations, analysts say.
A recent flurry of high-level contacts Beijing and Washington has underscored the new warm trend between the two nuclear-armed powers.
Bush has visited China twice in one year -- a precedent for a U.S. president. Chinese leader Jiang Zemin is scheduled to visit Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas later this month.
Jiang, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party, is supposed to step down at the 16th Party Congress that opens on Nov. 8.
He has invested a great deal of personal effort in restoring China's influence with the United States after the Tiananmen massacre and sees good relations between Beijing and Washington as a landmark of his 13 years in office.
The flow of U.S. investment, capital and technology into China and access to the U.S. market by Chinese companies and citizens has been a key factor in the country's economic growth of the past 20 years -- and Beijing is clearly not willing to jeopardize this.
But while acquiescent to the possibility of war, Beijing remains uneasy. Its key concern is securing access to vital Iraqi oil reserves.
China has no strategic oil reserves and its imports are rising every year, making it very vulnerable to the higher prices that would follow an attack on Iraq and tensions in the Middle East.
Official estimates say that by 2005, China will consume 260 million tonnes of oil, of which 80 million will be imported, and that by 2015 it will have to import at least half its requirements.
China buys oil from Iraq, with which it enjoys good trade relations. A war, especially a protracted one, would mean massive destabilisation of the region, the disruption of oil supplies, and perhaps, a downturn in global economic growth.
Should Washington succeed in its objective to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and replace it with a democratically oriented and pro-American government, then the danger for China is two-fold.
Iraqi oil supplies would be more available, but controlled by the United States. Thus, Beijing would find itself facing a U.S. sphere of influence stretching from Turkey through Iraq to Central Asia.
"There would be almost no vacuum left without U.S. military involvement from Asia to the Mediterranean coast," noted a commentary in the military-backed 'Liberation Daily' last month.
"Coupled with its influence in Europe through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and clout in the Asia-Pacific region through its alliance with Japan, the United States is completing its global monopoly ambitions," the article concluded.
October 10 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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