US wakes up to the sleeping dragon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am

IF there was a defining moment when China showed itself to be a superpower in waiting, it may have come this week.

With all eyes on New York to see how the world's powers would react to the growing spread of nuclear weapons, Beijing came into its own both in word and deed.

First, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen rejected Washington's pleas for it to desist with the sale of two large nuclear reactors to Iran; later, the same official made a speech to the UN's conference on extending the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), indicating that China did not want to join America's camp and vote for an indefinite extension of the treaty.

A third chapter in the drama came from London, where a new study revealed what most Western powers already know and fear - that Beijing is developing the kind of nuclear missile stockpile which by 2010 will be able to strike at potential foes all over the globe.

There was a time not long ago when, obsessed with the Soviet threat, the US paid little attention to China's military capability, except in the context of the East Asian arena.

But this week's events, where China has dominated headlines on the nuclear issue, make it clear that Washington has reluctantly accepted that the sleeping dragon has awakened into a potential global threat.

The collapse of the USSR has given America's foreign policymakers some breathing space to look more closely at Chinese expansionism, and conclude that the best way to contain it is by friendly co-operation rather than threats and confrontation.

Thus arose the already controversial programme of sharing technological information with the PLA; politically sensitive, it is also throwing up some intense security dilemmas too. For example, the Washington Post revealed last week how, during a top-secret visit in 1994 by Chinese officials to America's nuclear development laboratory at Los Alamos, they requested the US to supply them with highly-advanced systems for encoding missile launchers. Torn between keeping Beijing sweet and fearing the codes could be used to disarm America's own nukes, the Pentagon is mulling over the request.

China's fierce show of independence at the UN this week should send alarm signals to the officials trying to reach decisions on such questions. For all US-Sino co-operation, the Iran issue indicates that Beijing is in no mood to take orders from Washington on the matter of nuclear proliferation. Whether or not one believes Mr Qian's assertion that China expects Iran to use the technology for peaceful purposes the point is that China has decided to be its own boss.

And on the NPT issue, Beijing is carefully positioning itself away from the Western nuclear powers and closer to the developing non-aligned countries, such as Indonesia and Mexico, trying to forge a compromise which will allay their fears of becoming second class 'nuclear have-nots'.

China's show of self-confidence may partly be based on its economic success and military modernisation, but it is also surely directed at educating the US into easing off its role as global policeman. As with human rights, where not one substantive concession has been granted to the Clinton administration, Beijing knows that it could not cave in on its nuclear reactor sale without setting an unwelcome precedent.

THE able Mr Qian has also exposed some double-standards in America's nuclear stance. While pressuring China and Iran - both NPT signatories - to drop what may be a purely commercial transaction, Washington turns a blind eye to the nuclear deterrent being developed by its ally Israel, which refuses to sign the treaty. If the US really does believe that Beijing and Teheran are hiding spurious activities behind the NPT cloak, it may need some multilateral help in engineering a stop to it.

Like Russia, which also rejected American demands to abandon nuclear deals with Iran, China has the potential for ending up America's closest friend or its fiercest foe. Russia may have thousands of nuclear warheads, compared to China's handful of fairly limited ballistic missiles, but for many people, it is the future which matters. Beijing's behaviour this week has once more served as a warning to America where the great foreign policy issue of the early 21st century will lie.