China Steps Softly in Gulf Crisis

CHINA this week pledged not to sell arms to Iraq, abandoning a lucrative trade opportunity. This sensitivity to world reaction shows China is eager to be seen as a responsible country and to resume its good standing in the international community, says a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since the suppression of last year's pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing has been diplomatically isolated and has seen curtailment of foreign economic aid.

In the past, China differentiated between business and politics when it came to weapons sales, which earned badly needed hard currency. China has at times supplied arms to both parties engaged in the same conflict, as in the case of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), according to Western diplomatic sources.

Beijing has always denied it supplies arms to the Middle East.

Previously, China provided Iraq with small arms such as rifles, ammunition, and heavy equipment that included T-69 tanks, Shenyang F-7 fighters, and Silkworm missiles, according to Western diplomats. Sales to Iraq accounted for 20 to 30 percent of Chinese weapons shipments to the Middle East, they said.

Last year, after the end of the Gulf war, China's arms sales worldwide tumbled 50 percent to $1.1 billion, according to an estimate published by the Washington-based Congressional Research Service.

China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has supported all three Security Council resolutions condemning the Iraq invasion. ``China doesn't want to be isolated on this. They don't want to be seen as unhelpful in what is seen as a fairly just cause,'' a diplomat said.

The United States is still considering granting Beijing most-favored-nation trading status, the diplomat said. ``China doesn't want to give its enemies in Congress more ammunition.''

Beijing said last week that it opposed military intervention in the Gulf, favoring instead mediation by the Arab League and the UN Security Council.

But on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Peng said his nation would not oppose the decision to send US forces to the Gulf.

``In principle, we do not agree to big power military involvement,'' Mr. Li said, speaking from Jakarta during a visit marking the restoration of diplomatic ties with Indonesia. ``We do not want to see that the already-complicated situation in the Gulf area get more complicated.

``However, we respect and understand the defensive measures taken by Saudi Arabia, a sovereign state, out of consideration of its own security,'' he added.

Saudi Arabia broke relations with Taiwan last month to recognize China.

There is no indication that China will join peacekeeping forces in the Gulf, said the diplomat. ``They want to be as flexible as possible,'' he said, ``They don't want to be stuck way out in front on this one.''

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