Ask one of Washington's China-watchers why the United States often goes to such lengths to avoid antagonizing Beijing on some key issues, such as trade and climate change, and you're likely to get The Foreign Policy Response: America needs China's help with North Korea, Iran and Pakistan, and we don't want to jeopardize that.
The reasoning is Beijing's long-standing relationships with these countries, some going back to Cold War days, enable China to play the quiet broker in what otherwise might be a futile U.S. attempt to go it alone. Getting China to help apply pressure in these capitals could yield important gains for Washington.
On the face of it, however, what Beijing actually has delivered with regard to these countries has been decidedly less than the United States has hoped. And China seems unlikely to move more forcefully in America's behalf anytime soon. A pending U.S. request that China back tougher United Nations sanctions against Iran seems unlikely to win Beijing's vote.
On North Korea, for example, China has periodically nudged leader Kim Jong-Il into resuming Pyongyang's participation in the six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear weapons program. But Beijing has declined to intensify its pressure. China still sends food and energy to North Korea, keeping the regime intact.
On Iran, Beijing has balked at previous U.S. proposals to broaden the international sanctions against Tehran. Instead, China has increased its own trade with Iran, signing multibillion-dollar deals for oil refineries and pipelines, and permitting its companies to sell missile technology to Tehran.
On Pakistan, China has sent security troops to train police forces in Afghanistan, but it hasn't been pressing Pakistan to do more to help rid the region of Taliban fighters. Instead, the Chinese are mounting a major effort to secure raw materials in Afghanistan, building mines and refineries to supply their own industries.
To be sure, Beijing has some understandable hangups about going very far on any of these issues. On North Korea, for instance, China has a "conflicted interest," says Richard C. Bush III, a China expert now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"China understands that a nuclear North Korea could destabilize all of northeast Asia," Bush says, "but it also cares a lot about keeping the peace on its border with that country. It doesn't want North Korea to implode, sending refugees streaming across the boundary into China" -- or risk having U.S. troops come in to clean up.
On Iran, China is aware that Tehran is potentially dangerous, but it has been uncomfortable historically with almost any sort of proposal to punish or pressure countries with sanctions, and it is suspicious of U.S. motives in trying to broaden them. What if the United States some day wanted to push for global sanctions that target China?
On Pakistan, China is reluctant to push a longtime ally to pull its troops from India's border -- something Pakistan doesn't want to do and China doesn't want to see. Pakistani soldiers not only help protect their own country from a possible Indian attack; they also help shield China, which has long been at odds with India.
That said, Michael Swaine, a former RAND Corp. specialist on Chinese security issues now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, argues that Beijing's dealings with what the United States classifies as difficult or rogue states haven't been quite as bleak as portrayed.
"While China's track record is probably not as good as some in the U.S. government would like, the Chinese have not been deliberately seeking to undermine U.S. efforts in any of these regions, either," Swaine says. Indeed, "they've supported U.S. efforts to an extent."
Swaine argues the Chinese have been "very instrumental" in convincing the North Koreans to stay in the six-party talks, most recently last autumn in connection with the visit of special U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth. "To a lot of U.S. officials, the Chinese have been very cooperative," he says.
And while it's true China has been reluctant to support international sanctions against Iran, it did back the imposition of mild penalties on at least three occasions. But to China, both Pakistan and Iran are allies, not problem states as Washington sees them.
China's value in helping to prod Iran into abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions might come to a test in the next few weeks when the U.N. Security Council votes on whether to toughen sanctions against Tehran. Many diplomats believe Chinese pressure is a must if the United States is to persuade Iran to change.
China also might support a relatively mild U.N. resolution, or abstain from the vote entirely. While that wouldn't quite support the get-tougher approach, it would be a better outcome for the United States than if Beijing actually blocked broader sanctions by exercising its Security Council veto.
The Obama administration is continuing to press China to support a U.N. resolution, and Secretary of State Clinton told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that "we've made a lot of progress" on that front.
Still, the bottom line is that China's own interests often are so different from America's in many such dealings that Washington is likely to find itself frequently frustrated over what China will -- and won't -- do.
"You get what you can," Bush says.
This article appears in the March 6, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.