By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006
MOSCOW, Oct. 21 -- President Bush came into office six years ago deeply skeptical of Chinese intentions, casting doubt on the idea advanced by the Clinton administration that there could be a "strategic partnership" between China and the United States.
Now, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have begun to depict China's increasingly central role in the administration's myriad foreign policy problems as a significant achievement.
Rice, who arrived here Saturday on the last leg of her mission to galvanize action against North Korea, said she saw "some data points" that suggest China is becoming more of a partner on issues of importance to the United States, though the shift will not "happen in one fell swoop."
There is some evidence of China's shift, but the argument also has the virtue of finding a silver lining in the dark strategic cloud posed by North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon.
Many experts regard North Korea's test as a failure of Bush's nonproliferation policy. Critics have charged that Bush, distracted by Iraq, allowed North Korea to bolt from a Clinton-era agreement on freezing its nuclear programs, build a stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and finally test a weapon. Bush, unlike President Bill Clinton in an earlier crisis, refused to conduct sustained bilateral negotiations with North Korea and instead set up a somewhat cumbersome six-party negotiating framework hosted by China.
At many points, the United States found itself at odds with other partners in the six-party process, such as China and South Korea, which repeatedly urged the Bush administration to show more flexibility in its tactics. Meanwhile, administration officials were often divided on North Korea policy, with some wanting to engage the country and others wanting to isolate it.
Before North Korea announced it had detonated a nuclear device, some senior officials even said they were quietly rooting for a test, believing that would finally clarify the debate within the administration.
On her trip to Asia this week, Rice has come close to saying the test was a net plus for the United States. She has tried to deflect criticism by saying the test was an affirmation, rather than a failure, of the Bush administration's policy of trying to draw China deeper into negotiations on North Korea.
Noting that North Korea has spent three decades developing a nuclear weapon, Rice said it was "very unusual and quite significant" that China, which has traditionally considered sanctions to be a violation of national sovereignty, supported a tough U.N. Security Council resolution punishing North Korea. The resolution is under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which calls for mandatory sanctions for issues affecting international security.
"I don't care how many times you visited Pyongyang," Rice said, referring to a trip made by then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to the North Korean capital in 2000. "China had to be part of this regime to deal with the North Korea nuclear problem, and you're seeing it. Thirty years ago, you wouldn't have been able to get a Security Council resolution on North Korea, and when you get one it's Chapter 7, it's 15-0 and China's at the center of it. Not bad for a couple years' work."
Rice acknowledged that it was still unclear how hard the Chinese government would push North Korea, although she said China's views on the issue were "evolving." She said China had concerns about North Korea's stability and the prospect of a mass influx of refugees if the government collapses. And though China has always valued the status quo, Rice said: "I don't think that they are making a lot of assumptions about the status quo."
China is very concerned, for example, that Japan might decide to build a nuclear arsenal in response to North Korea's test. The Japanese government has ruled that out for now. But when Rice visited Tokyo on her first stop, officials there wanted to focus almost exclusively on receiving firm assurances that Japan is still protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The test "had set off a lot of questions that the Japanese were asking about their own security posture," Rice said.
In addition to the North Korea discussions, China is an important participant in the drive to roll back Iran's nuclear program. China also has extensive oil investments in Sudan, which has adamantly rebuffed a U.S.-led push to bring U.N. peacekeepers to Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
In 2005, when China abstained from a U.N. resolution launching a war crimes investigation into atrocities in Darfur, U.S. officials reported that China's state-owned petroleum company immediately erected billboards in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, attesting to China's friendship with Sudan. But in Rice's talks with Chinese officials Friday, she said she was able to have "more concrete discussions" about how to deal with Sudan, including strategizing on an upcoming meeting of African leaders in Beijing.