PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2002, 12:00am

Beijing's surprising overture to Nato suggesting a dialogue on security issues is another sign of China's desire to play a bigger role in world affairs. Interestingly enough, this was followed by Defence Minister Chi Haotian saying at a National Defence University seminar on international issues that the People's Liberation Army was willing to co-operate with foreign forces to achieve world peace and to establish a fair economic and political order in the international community.

The same day, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, announced that China was willing to accede to a United Nations request to send experts to join the weapons inspection team in Iraq. Mr Liu said China was holding talks with the UN.

Last year, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, China announced its willingness to take part in a multilateral military force if it was conducted under the UN umbrella. At the time, Beijing urged Nato to consult other countries before launching any military action outside Europe.

'Any action taken will have implications for other regions, so it's better that consultation be conducted,' said Wang Guangya, a vice-foreign minister. 'Nato is a regional military organisation within Europe, so if action is taken beyond Europe, it will have implications. So that's why I think consultation is needed.'

Mr Wang did not say which countries outside Europe Nato should consult, but the implication was fairly obvious. Since Afghanistan and several of the countries of Central Asia border China, Beijing evidently felt it should be consulted. And, again fairly obviously, it was not.

So it is not surprising that China decided to make a direct overture to Nato. China's ambassador to Brussels, Guan Chengyuan, asked for a courtesy meeting with Lord Robertson, Nato's secretary-general. During the meeting on October 10, which by all accounts was very friendly, Mr Guan casually suggested that China and Nato hold regular meetings to discuss strategic concepts, common threats and Nato's activities in Central Asia.

Historically, China has had little to do with the military organisation, although in 1999, during the Kosovo war, Nato aircraft attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what was later said to be a mistake. But China had always treated that as an American rather than a Nato issue.

No doubt China's interest in Nato was enhanced because of the likelihood that the organisation might play a wider role in Central Asia, which China considers to be its own backyard. China's approach may serve as a reminder to Nato that Beijing has a legitimate interest in events in Asia and, if Nato intends to be active outside Europe, then Beijing would want to be consulted.

Another possible factor behind China's approach to Nato may be a desire to divide the military organisation. Chinese propaganda has underlined differences between the US and the countries of Europe. However, while the Chinese may hope to see Europe moving closer to Asia and away from America, they must realise this is unlikely to happen.

A more immediate reason for the Chinese move may well be President Vladimir Putin's recent agreement to set up a Nato-Russia Council, which gives Russia the opportunity to discuss a wide range of security issues with the US-dominated security organisation, including even the possibility of joint action.

The Russians have taken care to assure the Chinese that Moscow's new relationship with Nato will not result in a poorer relationship with Beijing. Although China is wary of what the Russian-Nato relationship may lead to, it has decided, for the time being at least, to accept such assurances at face value.

China recognises that Russia is unhappy with Nato's enlargement which includes the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once Soviet republics - but knows that Moscow is not in a position to actively oppose such a development. And as long as Russia is calm about Nato's enlargement there is little reason for China to come out in opposition, especially if the organisation's activities are confined to Europe.

Nato has yet to formally respond to China's request, but it would be astounding if it rebuffed Beijing. After all, such meetings are likely to be mutually beneficial. A regular dialogue is likely to begin some time next year.

A China-Nato strategic dialogue would be another step by China into the international community, a development that should be generally welcomed.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator