World

Trouble on two fronts

Outrage in China and political chaos in Russia threaten Kosovo peace hopes

Andrew Phillips May 24 1999
World

Trouble on two fronts

Outrage in China and political chaos in Russia threaten Kosovo peace hopes

Andrew Phillips May 24 1999

Trouble on two fronts

Outrage in China and political chaos in Russia threaten Kosovo peace hopes

World

How angry were the Chinese that what they contemptuously labelled “U.S.-led NATO” mistakenly bombed their country’s embassy in Belgrade? So angry, it turned out last week, that some stopped eating American fast food—at least temporarily. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen outlets in Beijing were mostly empty, and a poster displayed near Beijing University conveyed the fury of an outraged people: “Give up the poison of American-style fast food and cultural opium—Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, KFC.”

However oddly it was expressed, Chinese anger at the United States for killing three Chinese journalists during its bungled bombing of the embassy was genuine enough.

China’s government may have encouraged and channelled the emotional protests that raged for three days outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

But it did not manufacture the feelings behind them.

Suddenly, the already-troubled relations between China and the United States were at their lowest ebb since they resumed official contacts in 1979. And just as suddenly, China was dragged into a crisis it had been content to observe from the sidelines—NATO’s war against Serbia. It promptly used NATO’s embarrassment to demand that the alliance stop its bombing campaign before the UN Security Council, where it holds a veto, gives its blessing to any peace plan for Kosovo.

Even worse for the West, China and Russia lined up in a tentative new alliance over Kosovo. Ever since the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon initiated his dramatic opening to China, the United States has made playing Beijing off against Moscow a cornerstone of its foreign policy. By dropping three bombs on China’s embassy in Belgrade (because, the Pentagon lamely explained, NATO targeters were using outdated maps), Washington put all that in jeopardy. Russia’s Kosovo peace envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, immediately travelled to Beijing and endorsed the Chinese position. NATO has ruled out a bombing pause, but it was again on the defensive at week’s end after dozens of ethnic Albanians died during the bombing of what NATO said was a military target in Kosovo.

The alliance’s diplomatic woes were complicated by Russia’s internal disarray. Western leaders had been counting heavily

on Moscow to find a way out of Kosovo. In Washington, it has been dubbed the “two magnets” theory—NATO pulls the Russians closer to its position, then hopes the Russians can pull Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic closer to its stance. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise decision last week to fire his latest prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and his entire government threw that strategy into question. Yeltsin followed up by threatening to end all talks with NATO over Kosovo if the alliance continues to ignore Moscow’s suggestions.

Yeltsin’s domestic motives baffled many observers, given that he was fighting what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him in the Russian Duma, or parliament. Primakov’s growing popularity, long a firing offence for the ailing president, seemed a key element. Yeltsin named former interior minister Sergei Stepashin, 47, a loyalist with strong roots in the security services, as the new premier—setting up another possible confrontation with the Duma over his confirmation.

Yet despite Russia’s political chaos, its diplomatic machine remained intact. Chernomyrdin answers directly to Yeltsin and so can continue his peace efforts despite Primakov’s dismissal. Moreover, it is easy to read too much into the new MoscowBeijing axis. Both countries are annoyed at being brushed aside by NATO. And both share a distaste for the emerging Western doctrine that allows intervention in countries that violate human rights too grievously, especially since Kosovo’s secession is an issue (Russia has Chechnya and other restive republics; China has Tibet and Taiwan). But to most experts, the two onetime ideological allies have a greater interest in good relations with the United States than in cozying up to each other again. “There’s just too much to lose and too little to gain for both of them,” notes Robert Suettinger, who served as a White House adviser on East Asia from 1994 to 1998. Nearly a week after the embassy debacle, Chinese President Jiang Zemin finally accepted a phone call from U.S. President Bill Clinton offering personal condolences for the deaths of the three Chinese. Peace in Kosovo, however, looked more elusive than ever.

Andrew Phillips in Washington