IN recent days China has done its best to rein in the United States-led effort to force North Korea to allow international inspections of its nuclear program.
Chinese officials say that more dialogue, rather than confrontation, is the way to solve the inspections impasse. They have used the threat of their United Nations Security Council veto to press for a moderately-worded statement on the issue in the UN, rather than the stiffer binding resolution favored by the US.
Despite public protestations that their effort is on track, Clinton officials must be ``somewhat disappointed'' that China is taking a softer line than they are, notes Patrick Glynn, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
But at least China, North Korea's only real ally, will not squarely block attempts to pressure Pyongyang. Even a mild UN statement urging North Korean cooperation ``will have the effect of ratcheting up the pressure slightly,'' Mr. Glynn says.
AS of this writing it was not clear when the UN might take action on the North Korea problem.
Issuing a nonbinding statement in the name of the president of the Security Council, the approach China favors, would require only a consensus among members, not a vote. China has already submitted a draft statement that simply calls on North Korea to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The binding Security Council resolution proposed by the US threatened unspecified further action - probably economic sanctions - in one month if North Korea does not cooperate.
That kind of pressure ``can only deteriorate the atmosphere and aggravate the problem,'' said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin in Beijing on Wednesday.
Perhaps bowing to the inevitable, US officials have begun saying that the form of UN action, whether it be binding resolution or statement, is not as important as its content.
They also continue to insist that China does not want North Korea to become a nuclear power any more than the US does. Such a move, after all, could destabilize the balance of power in East Asia, with unpredictable results for China itself.
President Clinton on Wednesday pointed out that China has much more trade with South Korea than with North Korea, giving Beijing added economic incentive to push for a peaceable outcome. China's ``long-term objectives ... are consistent with what our long-term objectives are, so I hope that we can work through this crisis,'' said Clinton.