China seen more flexible on Iraq than N Korea
Beijing, February 23

US Secretary of State Colin Powell flies to Beijing on Sunday to try to persuade China to use its leverage over North Korea and push for its support for a possible new UN resolution on Iraq.

Analysts say Powell, who visited Beijing a year ago with President George W. Bush, can expect perhaps tacit Chinese backing on Iraq, which China views as a distant problem not worth jeopardising Sino-US relations over.

But on North Korea, China's neighbour and long-time ally, Powell's prodding would elicit little in the way of overt support because the stakes were higher in Beijing's eyes, they said.

China, like France and Russia, has voiced its preference that UN weapons inspectors be given more time in Iraq.

But Beijing was likely to abstain from a vote on another, tougher resolution rather than veto it, said Mei Renyi, a foreign relations expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"China thinks that right now is not the time for passing a second resolution. In addition, it does not want to put too many limitations on the weapons inspectors," he said.

But "unless it is absolutely essential, China will not use its veto because from the beginning China has never taken the lead and China is not willing to take the lead", Mei said.

Iraq was after all quite distant and not worth a setback to the recent warming trend in Beijing's relations with Washington, said a Chinese expert on Sino-US ties that asked not to be named.

"For China, Iraq is not a very big issue. China won't clearly go against US policies on Iraq like Germany and France have done," he said.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, China abstained from almost every Iraq-related resolution in the UN Security Council, where it is a permanent, veto-wielding member.

Last November, China went along with the rest of the Security Council and voted in favour of Resolution 1441, which called on Iraq to disarm.

Closer to home

But Powell may find a cooler reception to suggestions that Beijing use its close diplomatic ties and economic clout to keep an unruly Pyongyang in check.

Crisis erupted in October, when the United States said North Korea had admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme. Since then, Pyongyang has ejected UN monitors, moved to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor and withdrawn from the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Critics argue that China, as the main source of food and fuel shipments to North Korea and one of its oldest friends, has the chance to make a statement against proliferation and force Pyongyang to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Beijing views a nuclear-armed North Korea as destabilising, fearing it could spark an arms race in northeast Asia.

But China opposes economic sanctions, fearing further brinksmanship by the north or possible collapse. It says the best way to resolve the issue is through direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang and not in the UN Security Council.

"China's main aim is to prevent military conflict on the Korean peninsula," said Yan Xuetong, director of Tsinghua University's International Affairs Institute.

China views regional stability as an essential component of its continued strong economic growth, and thus prefers slow, gradual movement towards reunification on the Korean Peninsula.

A sudden collapse of the reclusive Communist North could send a flood of refugees across the border into China and raise the prospect of bringing some of the 37,000 US troops in South Korea closer to the Chinese border, analysts say.

Thus, Chinese academics say, Beijing has little to gain from strong-arming North Korea.

"The United States wants us to do this and do that. But what has the United States done for us?" asked a US-trained academic at a Beijing university who requested anonymity.

"If Chinese pressure on North Korea triggers a flood of refugees, who will foot the bill? The least the United States could do is stop selling weapons to Taiwan," he said, referring to China's long-time rival.

Others say Beijing is doing more than it appears, working quietly behind the scenes to avoid an awkward debate playing out in the UN Security Council.