WASHINGTON - National interests make strange bedfellows. There could be no better example than the warming diplomatic relationship between the United States and China, two old antagonists.
If North Korea, indeed, has agreed finally to get on a pathway to nuclear disarmament, a cherished Bush administration goal, China can take a bow for diplomatic success. It took the lead in diplomacy with Kim Jong Il’s government.
More quietly, China has intensified its pressure on Iran to halt enrichment of uranium, another prime U.S. foreign policy goal.
And as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China probably will be at the table in Baghdad around March 10 when Iraq hosts a regional meeting seeking stability and a way out of civil war.
That meeting will be significant for bringing together American, Iranian and Syrian diplomats, a reversal in the Bush administration’s shunning of Tehran and Damascus. Both Iran and Syria are on the State Department’s list of terror-exporting states, and Washington has criticized both for allegedly interfering in Iraq.
Reflecting on the breakthrough Feb. 13 decision by North Korea to dismantle its principal reactor in exchange for fuel, U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill paid high tribute to China this week in Congress.
“We really have lined up our interests with them,” Hill said, citing especially the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
For one thing, Hill said, China wants “clarity” from North Korea about abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
That’s a diplomatic way of saying China is taking on the task of making sure North Korea does not slip out of what appears to be a firm commitment.
On the other hot nuclear front, China used a visit to Beijing on Thursday by Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi to urge Iran to cease uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.
If Iran should continue to defy the Council, claiming its enrichment is not part of a weapons program, the Bush administration is likely to propose more economic sanctions against Tehran.
China’s cooperation would be vital. It has the power to veto any Council resolution but could hold its nose, abstain, and not block punishment.
China’s expected participation in a meeting of U.S., European, Russian, Iranian and Syrian ambassadors in Baghdad and then a follow-up foreign ministers meeting in April is most intriguing.
It extends China’s reach diplomatically and opens a door to wider cooperation with the Bush administration as it seeks to find a solution to the bloody insurgency in Iraq.
There will be much to talk about when Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte flies to Beijing on Saturday for two days of meetings as part of an Asia trip.
Describing China as a hypothetical adversary that helps the Pentagon prepare its budget requests, James Dobbins, senior security analyst at the Rand Corp., said Thursday, “When we find a real adversary like North Korea or al-Qaida, China becomes an ally and not an adversary.”
And, Dobbins said in an interview, “We are in a phase now where we have real enemies. We don’t have to make up hypothetical ones.”
Old China hands cautioned Thursday, however, against going overboard.
James R. Lilley, an ambassador to China and South Korea under former President Ronald Reagan, cautioned that “the relationship with China goes up and goes down” historically.
“It is not tranquil or stable,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are differences but also complementary interests.”
On the down side currently, Lilley cited accusations of Chinese currency manipulation and copyright infringements.
“If you can’t handle contradictions, get the hell out of China,” he said.
Michael Green, an adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Georgetown University professor, credited China with being more helpful with North Korea and Iran. “And building on that cooperation is important,” Green said in an interview.
But, he said, China also is backsliding on human rights and religious freedom and is taking provocative moves to build up its military, including recent anti-satellite tests.
“So, the administration will have to be careful not to boil U.S.-China relations down to one or two areas of cooperation, no matter how important they are,” said Green, who headed the Asia desk at the National Security Council for the Bush administration until the end of 2005.
Jeffrey Bader, director of the Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said China is focused on economic development and for that it needs a peaceful international environment.
“The key is a good relationship with the United States, and they realize they cannot challenge the United States for a generation or more, if they were inclined to do so,” the former official under Presidents Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush said in a separate interview.
China is acting consistently with its national interests, Bader said. “I would not call it a new day dawning,” he said. “I would call it logical steps in their national security interest.”