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.
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.
Moreover, China's diplomats are closely studying the nuts and bolts of the UN peacekeeping force in anticipation that UN troops will eventually man the Kuwait-Iraq border, says a Western diplomat.
While China seems to appreciate the UN's role in the world of Realpolitik, the recent information regarding its smuggling bid shows little regard for the UN resolution barring arms sales.
The Chinese military officer says Beijing assured an Iraqi emissary last fall that, despite its endorsement of the UN embargo, it would provide Baghdad with arms if a third country transported the weaponry.
Western diplomats confirm that later, toward the end of December, China's arms merchants furtively urged diplomats from more than one third-world country to run the arms to Iraq.
China very likely sought help from North Korea, say the diplomats. Beginning in 1982, North Korea was reported to have helped Beijing supply Iran with arms for many years.
``If China makes good on such a sale it would be committing diplomatic suicide - it would have to be 100 percent sure that such a deal wouldn't be revealed,'' says a diplomat, voicing a widely held view.
Of course, China has previously continued its lucrative arms peddling to the Middle East despite foreign outrage. In particular, its arms merchants profited their way into disrepute by simultaneously selling weaponry to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war.
Beijing became one of Iraq's top four arms suppliers during the 1980s, providing it with T-69 tanks, Shenyang F-7 fighters, light infantry weapons, and Silkworm missiles.
Also, China sold to Saudi Arabia medium-range missiles capable of striking Israel, according to disclosures made in 1988.
But in recent years, China's massive and politically influential arms industry has seen its exports to the third world fall steadily, from $4.7 billion in 1987 to $1.1 billion in 1989. Such sales are a rare source of vital hard currency for the military.
Today, Beijing could find Baghdad an eager shopper for a range of weapons and arms-related goods, including spare parts for tanks and fighters, ammunition, rocket fuel, chemicals for making jet fuel, and components for Scud missiles, say diplomats concerned with military affairs.
Beyond profits over arms, Beijing believes the Gulf conflict offers it an opportunity to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by Moscow's withdrawal from hands-on involvement in the region.
Premier Li Peng, eager to pick up the remains of Soviet cold-war diplomacy in the Gulf, has proposed that China and the Soviet jointly seek a peaceful solution in the war, say Eastern European diplomats.
China's conservative leaders believe they have an ideological duty to fill in for the embattled Kremlin in the cause of ``making the world safe for socialism,'' according to the diplomats.
Despite its relatively neutral stand in the Gulf, China may only enjoy limited diplomatic leverage when the war ends. Arab and other countries whose troops have spilled blood on Kuwaiti sand will primarily shape the peace, say some analysts.
``The dominant role [in peacemaking] will rest on relationships that are cobbled together among those powers who have fought'' over Kuwait, says Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the RAND Corporation.