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China as Bully

Friday, March 5, 1999; Page A32

THE U.S. debate on policy toward China ranges over many subjects but often comes back to one question: Is China becoming a responsible player in world affairs? Where you stand on issues such as transferring high technology to China or encouraging its membership in the World Trade Organization tends to depend on how you evaluate China's role. Is it increasingly, as the Clinton administration contends, a force for stability and peace? Or does its Communist regime have a fundamentally different view of the world and its interests therein, as might be indicated by its sale of missile technology to unsavory regimes and its threats to peaceful neighbors?

No one can say where China is headed. But a clue to how it pursues its ambitions right now is on view in the tiny country of Macedonia, population 2.1 million. That's where a small but successful United Nations peacekeeping force closed up shop this week because China, angry that Macedonia had extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, spitefully insisted on its demise.

The implications of this little-remarked development are substantial. Unlike most of its neighbors, Macedonia managed to emerge from its place within the former Yugoslavia without bloodshed. But its success was far from inevitable. Its ethnic mix (including 66 percent Macedonian and 23 percent Albanian) could have been combustible. It has suffered threats from Serbian nationalists, hostility from Greece, indirect damage from the international economic sanctions on Serbia. Now fighting has resumed in Kosovo just a few miles from Macedonia's border. This is a particularly dangerous time to remove the stabilizing influence of the U.N. peacekeepers.

With effort, the blow may prove not to be fatal. Macedonia has avoided the fate of its neighbors primarily because its own political leaders have chosen tolerance. It has been helped toward conflict resolution by nongovernmental groups, such as Search for Common Ground, that will keep working. But the 1,000-troop U.N. force, including 360 Americans, also has played an important role. Now that China has blocked the mission, other organizations such as NATO should step in if possible to keep the force in place.

Which brings us to the second implication of China's move. Some Europeans argue that the U.N. Security Council should govern NATO's actions in Europe, effectively giving China and Russia a veto over NATO operations. This episode points to the risks of such a policy.

China's reckless willingness to risk a further spread of war in the Balkans also has implications for how China is, or should be, perceived in global affairs. Perhaps it is too much to expect China or Taiwan to give up its competition for diplomatic recognition from other states. This is a game both have played for years, wielding promises of aid and investment as well as, in China's case, threats. But a great power, by definition, is capable of setting aside parochial slights in the larger interest of regional peace. China, though it occupies one of five great-power seats on the U.N. Security Council, clearly doesn't qualify.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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