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China Tried To Sell Iraq Arms After Embargo

Chinese military officer says smuggling bid is attempt to play both sides of the Gulf war

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 1991


CHINESE leaders were secretly searching last month for a country willing to smuggle weapons to Iraq even as they pledged support for the arms embargo against Saddam Hussein's military, according to an officer in the People's Liberation Army and diplomats in Beijing. The government has found at least one ready smuggler, the officer says. But Western diplomats say it is unlikely Beijing will go ahead with such sales amid the current hostilities in the Gulf. Since the beginning of Desert Storm, the risks of completing an arms deal have outweighed the profits, they say.

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There is no evidence that Beijing has yet delivered arms to Iraq since it endorsed the United Nations arms embargo last August, the diplomats add.

But China's attempt to recruit a smuggler for arms sale shipments, they point out, highlights its daring and so far successful effort to satisfy both sides in the Gulf conflict.

``Beijing has been very clever; if the war or its aftermath goes badly for UN forces, Beijing can say, `Look, we told you that the war would bring greater trouble,''' said an East European diplomat.

``If the war goes well, Beijing is in a good position to build the peace because of its comparatively neutral stand,'' the diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.

China can expect a role in the peace-building process after the Gulf war because it is the only country on the UN Security Council that can claim a degree of impartiality, according to the diplomats. Until now China has called on Iraq to quit Kuwait but has also condemned the use of force to compel a withdrawal.

By voicing the interests of a developing country in peace talks with the West, Beijing hopes to advance its longstanding aim of becoming a leading champion of the third world, diplomatic sources say.

So far, China has impressed Baghdad by agreeing last autumn to sell it weapons while insisting on a peaceful solution to the Gulf crisis, say the diplomats and the Chinese military officer.

Meanwhile, China has satisfied the West's goals by supporting UN resolutions against Iraq, including its willingness to abstain rather than veto the resolution authorizing the use of force.

Diplomats say China waited until Western powers had coaxed it from its post-Tiananmen diplomatic isolation before it agreed not to veto the option to use force.

China plans to continue using its UN Security Council seat to play a stronger diplomatic role than it otherwise could with its limited economic and military power, says the military officer, who is involved in political affairs.

``China sees the Security Council as a place where it can make itself into a big power because it will have to be wined and dined on major issues,'' according to one Western diplomat.

``With veto power on the Council they have a tremendous amount of diplomatic leverage,'' he says.

Beijing is intrigued at how Washington has used its Security Council seat to achieve US goals, particularly during the Korean War, according to the military officer.

Consequently, the Communist Party leadership is analyzing past US diplomatic moves during the Korean War to prepare for its own peacemaking role in the Gulf. This includes reviewing the diplomatic maneuvers leading to the Korean armistice, which could show China how to amplify its voice on the Security Council, the officer says.