China and Iraq

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Last week's airstrikes in Iraq have forced the Bush administration to confront one of the most troubling parts of the complex U.S. relationship with China: Beijing's persistent practice of supplying weapons to unstable or unsavory governments in violation of agreements with the United States or international law, or both. It is time to end the practice of past administrations that tolerated or overlooked these offenses.

In the latest instance, Chinese technicians were found to be installing fiber optic cable for Iraqi air defenses. As reported by the Washington Post, the work continued despite the quiet delivery of a diplomatic protest to Beijing last month by an assistant secretary of state; as a result, U.S. strikes were timed for Friday, a Muslim holiday, in part in order to avoid injuring Chinese nationals.

So far, the administration's requests for an explanation from China, both public and private, apparently have been greeted with silence; a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that the ministry knew nothing about the work. Some experts do question whether the Chinese government is always aware or in control of military deals struck by the People's Liberation Army and its associated companies. Still, there is a clear pattern here. Again and again in the past decade, the United States has detected illegal or troubling Chinese sales: missiles and missile-launchers to Pakistan and Syria, nuclear technology to Iran, antiaircraft systems to Iraq. The Chinese have first denied knowledge of the sales, then agreed to stop them, in exchange for concessions from the United States. Just three months ago, for example, Beijing formally agreed with the Clinton administration to stop selling missile technology to other countries. It was the third time it had made that promise; the other two times the sales soon resumed.

It is time to stop tolerating such gamesmanship. Behind the sales and the smoke screen lies a deeper Chinese purpose: to thwart U.S. global leadership. China's rulers apparently believe they can carry out such a policy while simultaneously intimidating U.S. administrations into strictly limiting support for Taiwan; that they can upgrade Saddam Hussein's defenses while demanding that the United States not do the same for Taiwan's democratic government. Whether they intended to or not, the past two administrations have accepted that formula. The Bush administration should make clear that it no longer holds.

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