Friday, September 21, 2001




China must choose sides
in war on terrorism

HONG KONG >> The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., have presented the Chinese government with a challenge: how to respond to America's attempt to forge an international coalition against terrorism. How China responds will, to a large extent, shape its relationship with the rest of the world in the coming decades.

While Washington will act unilaterally if it has to, it prefers to act through multilateral organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with the power of veto, is in a position to help or hinder the American effort. China's initial responses have been positive but Beijing's enthusiasm for such an effort remains to be seen.

Until the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, China depicted itself as the center of world revolution and provided support, moral and material, for insurgent movements.

Even under Deng Xiaoping, the economic reformer, China continued to see itself as the leader of the Third World and could not afford to be identified with the capitalist West.

In recent years, China has moved away from entangling political relationships as it focused on economic development. Even so, Washington has on many occasions accused China of selling missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan, Iran and Iraq as well as other countries believed by the United States to be sponsors of terrorism. It is clear that the United States will adopt an even tougher stance towards "rogue states" and their supporters. China will have to choose which side it is on. It cannot equivocate.

So far, China has said the right things. When President George W. Bush spoke with President Jiang Zemin by telephone after the attack to enlist his support, Jiang characterized terrorism as "a challenge to all people who cherish peace," adding that China was ready to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with the United States and the international community.

Time will tell the extent to which China will participate in the anti-terrorism effort. Perhaps for cultural reasons, China's words against terrorism seem to lack conviction. In the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed not to rest "until this evil is driven from our world" and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that "such inhuman acts must not go unpunished."

But President Jiang contented himself with extending "sincere sympathy" and offering "condolences to the family members of the victims," while adding that China "consistently condemns and opposes all manner of terrorist violence."

Even though China appears to have joined the mainstream of international opinion on this issue, it is likely that disagreements will arise, especially if Washington or NATO should decide to take military action. China is a strong supporter of the concept of national sovereignty and is vehemently opposed to foreign intervention in its own or other countries' internal affairs. A decade ago, China did not support United Nations action against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. But it did refrain from vetoing such action by abstaining in the Security Council.

The ambiguity in the Chinese position was reflected in the official media not reporting the attack on the World Trade Center for three hours. It was only after the Chinese leadership had decided what position to adopt that the news was disseminated. Jiang's message went out to Washington at about the same time the news of the attack was released to the Chinese public. Clearly, China decided that its opposition to terrorism outweighed its opposition to America's pro-Israeli policies.

China enjoys warm relations with many countries suspected of harboring terrorists, or of being rogue states themselves. Thus, on Sept. 11, the day of the terrorist attack, China signed an agreement with the Taliban regime that governs Afghanis-tan regarding economic and technical cooperation. Afghan-istan has provided sanctuary to Osama bin Ladin, suspected of masterminding several anti-U.S. terrorist attacks.

Moreover, China is an ally of Pakistan, which is a key supporter of the Taliban regime. Thus, it is doubtful if China will support any U.S. military action against those countries.

Over the years, China has gone from being a revolutionary to a status quo power. Now it has skyscrapers that may one day become the targets of terrorists. Like the United States, China imports oil from the Middle East. And Beijing is fearful of Islamic fundamentalists and the influence they wield in Moslem parts of China, such as Xinjiang in the far west.

Ultimately, China will have to decide whether its interests lie with the global establishment, imperfect as it is, or with those who seek to change the international order through terrorism.

The answer should be clear.

Frank Ching is an American writer in Hong Kong.

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