China's basic position on cooperation with the US to fight terrorism remains strongly in the "pro" category. Yet Beijing has gone through several evolutions in its position.
Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Beijing took a very open and general position "opposed to terrorism." Two days later, worried about NATO "out of area" operations, the Chinese position became, "We won't oppose you, so long as you go through the United Nations."
Official statements by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao yesterday appeared to raise the bar further. For the first time, China stated that the acceptable threshold for US or NATO action overseas needs to be based on "concrete evidence ... clear and objective" before attacks on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban or others.
China's Foreign Minister also left yesterday for Washington to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
China is the biggest political and economic power in the region, and Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's closest military ally. But it is quite worried that a US troop presence could become permanent. US troops in South Asia - along with the Pacific Fleet's presence in East Asia - would leave it boxed in.
"China is quite sensitive about military bases, and we will hope that any deal Musharraf agrees to [with the US] does not include ground troops," says one leading Beijing professor.
China does not want to appear to be holding up efforts to track down terrorists, but also does not want any precedent set for the US or NATO to ignore the UN framework. The result appears to be a formula offered by the Foreign Ministry last week. Essentially, Mr. Zhu said, China will do nothing to stop US action - and in fact will assist it - so long as the US honors the UN process. "Under the current circumstances, it is very important and urgent to enhance cooperation in the fight against terrorism under the UN charter," he said.
While China has no official ties to the Taliban, it does have ongoing contacts. China is worried about Uigher Muslim separatists who train in Pakistan, fight in Afghanistan, and then come back to Xinjiang in western China.
And while Beijing opposes "terrorism, extremism, and separatism," the concept mainly extends to problems related to Xinjiang's Uighers and Tibet.