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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

US experts see Chinese dilemma in ending Korean, Iranian nuclear crises

WASHINGTON: As the United States banks on China's backing for international action against nuclear renegades Iran and North Korea, US experts see Beijing facing a dilemma: how to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the global system while pursuing its national interests.

China is the top broker in efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive and is a key member of the UN Security Council, which could decide this week whether to press ahead with US-led sanctions against Iran for refusing to stop its uranium enrichment activities.

But given its energy and investment links with Iran, China is seemingly reluctant to impose harsh sanctions on Iran even though it had joined other Council members in July to adopt a resolution seeking punitive measures against the Islamic republic if did not end its sensitive nuclear work.

"It's a litmus test as to whether or not the Chinese are going to look beyond again their sort of narrow nationalist interests and accept more global interests," said Bonnie Glaser, a US government consultant on Asian affairs for more than two decades.

"The refusal to do so in Iran's case would even be more an indication of China's unwillingness to be a responsible stakeholder in the system than even in the North Korea's case," she said, referring to Washington's oft-repeated call for Beijing to be a "constructive" player in an international system that has enabled its success.

China's interests in the Iranian case are not at stake in the same way as they are with Stalinist neighbour North Korea.

China and Iran have close economic ties but preliminary gas and oil deals involving Sinopec, China's largest refiner, have yet to bear fruit.

Even with its propensity to assume high risk, Sinopec is not willing to sink billions of dollars into a project that could be destroyed in a potential military confrontation between the United States and Iran, said John Calabrese, the American author of "Chinas Changing Relations with the Middle East."

"That is why, oddly enough, China should have a stronger interest in supporting nuclear diplomacy rather than in subverting it," said the teacher of US foreign policy at American University in a report by Jamestown Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

At some point, Calabrese said, this might require that Beijing choose to side either with Washington or Tehran -- "a choice that until now Beijing has managed to avoid in the interest of cementing a less than perfect but nonetheless fruitful relationship with Iran."

While Beijing opposes sanctions against Tehran, it has to some extent been cooperative with other countries on the Iranian nuclear issue.

With North Korea, it cautiously prods the reclusive Stalinist regime to give up its nuclear weapons for fear that any instability in that country could spill over to China and cause domestic economic as well as social and perhaps political problems.

China has hosted six-nation talks, also including the United States, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan, for nearly three years, to end the Korean nuclear crisis but without any firm breakthrough.

Some pundits claim the United States has bent backwards at times, even softening its criticism on China's human rights record, in a bid to gain Beijing's support to resolve the Iranian and Korean atomic crises.

But Randell Schriver, a senior State Deparment official in charge of East Asian affairs during the first term of the administration of President George W. Bush, said the Chinese knew very well that they were not well served with nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula or a nuclear armed Iran.

"Perhaps they are trying to be a bit of a free rider -- allow others to do the heavy lifting and anger governments in Pyongyang and Tehran while they continue to keep a better reputation in those capitals," he said.

"But I don't think that can be the case much longer," Schriver said.

The Bush administration's difficulty in winning undivided Chinese support to end the Korean and Iranian nuclear disputes also stemmed from mixed signals as to whether Washington was prepared to normalize relations with regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran if they gave up their nuclear weapons ambitions.

"I think one reason the Chinese are reluctant to put strong pressure on North Korea and Iran is that they might calculate that even if they successfully pressured them to give up their nuclear programs, the US administration might still be seeking a regime change," said Robert Einhorn, a former top US government weapons control expert.

The US administration, he said, should make clear to China that if North Korea and Iran genuinely addressed concerns about their nuclear programs, then Washington would be prepared to move towards normalisation of relations with the regimes currently in place.

"I think if the Chinese were convinced that the US was prepared to take 'yes' for an answer then perhaps they would be prepared to put some additional pressure on those two countries," he said.

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