Pacific News Service, Commentary, George Koo, Posted: Mar 28, 2003
Editor's Note: China is officially opposed to the war in Iraq, but recent actions show China is most concerned with improving its relationship with the United States and keeping its giant economy growing.
On a recent business trip to Shanghai I asked people about the conflict with Iraq. They had little to say. To the Chinese, this is America's war.
China's top advisory body recently expressed "shock and concern" with the war. But unlike France and Russia, which have strongly opposed the war with belligerent statements and U.N. Security Council veto threats, China's response has been relatively mild.
It has never been in the Chinese character to tell another nation what to do. China long ago concluded that confrontation with the United States was not in its national interest. After Sept. 11, 2001, China actively sought common cause with Washington in fighting terrorism. China's former president, Jiang Zemin, visited President George Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch in the fall of 2002 to seemingly seal the alliance.
Since then China has gone out of its way to cultivate friendly relations with the United States.
As the U.S.-led military action in Iraq began, a spokesman from Beijing's Foreign Ministry expressed "regret and disappointment" and indicated that the invasion "violates norms of international behavior." His comments, read during a regularly scheduled briefing, did not criticize the United States by name.
After the first missiles landed on Baghdad -- shown live on China Central Television -- reaction on the street was considerably stronger. The U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade seemed to bubble to the fore, as most concluded that, in the words of one man, "the U.S. is being a big bully again."
Officially, China continues to work within the U.N. charter and in cooperation with other nations to look for a peaceful solution. Clearly, China is reluctant to take any lead in opposition to the unilateral U.S. action. In any case, events on the ground and in Iraq's airspace are likely to overtake any further and futile attempts at diplomacy.
Looming on the horizon is the threat from North Korea, which the Bush administration seems to think is within China's capability to resolve unilaterally. China has demurred, but offers to assist the U.S. in multilateral diplomacy -- alas, not a strong suit for the Bush administration.
China's priority remains its domestic economy, which must continue to grow at 7 to 8 percent per year in order to create the jobs needed to soak up laid-off workers and rural migrants.
Unfortunately, China's economy is also fueled by oil, and this spells potential future conflict with the United States. In 2000, 31 percent of the oil consumed by China was imported. Within 30 years, China's dependence on imported oil is expected to increase to 84 percent. Much of the world's oil is located in the Gulf region.
China can only hope that by the time competition for oil arises, the United States will be too busy or too exhausted to pick another fight.