Bush's UN Speech--and China's Reaction

President George W.

President George W. Bush's September 12 speech before the United Nations does not show any fundamental changes of his administration's position on Iraq. In his speech President Bush warned that the United States is ready to act "militarily" against Iraq--without the UN, if necessary--if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is not made to honor previous commitments to disarmament and UN weapons inspections. The signal is very clear that the United States would go ahead with its plan to launch an attack on Iraq, even if it has to do so unilaterally.

The Chinese government's reaction is not unexpected. On the same day of President Bush's speech, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, who is also in town to attend the 57th UN General Assembly session, said that the Iraqi issue should be resolved within the framework of the United Nations. He stressed that all relevant UN Security Council resolutions should be abided by in an earnest manner. Foreign Minister Tang's message is clear: China is for a UN solution and will not support the use of force by the United States against Iraq without the consent of the United Nations. China's position is principled, but leaves some room for compromise.

On other occasions, Chinese governmental officials have also emphasized that the United States should present to the world the "irrefutable" and "direct" links between the Iraqi regime and the September 11 terrorist attacks. In fact, this call has also been echoed by many other governments, including allies of the United States. Obviously, President Bush did not do this in his UN speech. This partly explains why only Britain, Israel and Australia have expressed their full support for any American action vis-à-vis Iraq, and why there is much opposition within the United States as well to such a course of action.

Under mounting pressures, both at home and abroad, the Bush Administration is trying to win support at the UN Security Council so as to acquire greater legitimacy for any future military action against Iraq. This has also been reflected in Bush's UN speech. By coming to the United Nations, the Bush Administration has provided some breathing room for the United States and China to conduct more consultations regarding the Iraqi question.

The common stance against international terrorism, coupled with American willingness to work within the United Nations, does create the basis for cooperation between the United States and China. It could enable the two countries to join their efforts both inside and outside the UN to persuade Iraq to fully abide by all the relevant UN resolutions in order to avoid war. In parallel, both countries could continue negotiations (as well as expand cooperation) on the issue of non-proliferation. Finally, the two countries could make common and joint efforts with regard to Middle Eastern issues one of the important components of their strategic dialogue, which in turn would strengthen the basis for their bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

At this moment, the question is not whether the United States will attack Iraq or not, but when and how. Now that the United States is stepping up its military preparation and deployment, the possibility of a war is more imminent than ever before. Therefore, in China's opinion, the most urgent task is to avoid a war by diplomatic and political means. China does not support a unilateral American military attack against Iraq, nor does China want to see the overall global coalition against terrorism derailed by the Iraq issue.

As some Chinese scholars have pointed out, the United States should seriously consider why it has only found three allies who are willing to support its military action against Iraq, whereas so many allies and friends have emerged to criticize and oppose such action. This should cause the United States to re-examine its unilateralism and assertiveness in international affairs in general and its would-be military actions against Iraq in particular. As Joseph Nye has correctly pointed out, the United States could go alone--but should it?

Whether the United States has initiated military action or not when President Jiang comes to President Bush's Crawford ranch for the summit meeting in October, it is clear that the Iraq issue will definitely be on their agenda. It is to be hoped that the two leaders could earnestly exchange their viewpoints and search for a better solution. China and the United States are facing another test; we sincerely hope that Sino-American relations could survive it and stay on a healthier and more stable course.

Yang Jiemian is the Vice President and a Senior Fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.