China has pledged its support for the United States in combating terrorism. But it faces a delicate balancing act as it decides what kind of practical help it will offer. China wants to fight Islamic terrorist threats on its far western regions, but it also has a fiercely nationalistic population that does not want the government to appear pro-American.
Chinese state media are playing down news about preparations for a global anti-terrorist war. But it is becoming increasingly likely that China will be forced to play a larger role in U.S.-led efforts to crack down on the perpetrators of last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
China shares a border with Afghanistan, which is believed to be harboring Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who is Washington's prime suspect in its investigation. China is also a close ally and neighbor of Pakistan, which is demanding that Afghanistan's ruling Taleban hand over Osama bin Laden.
The official Xinhua News Agency reports that Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf may visit Beijing for talks on how to coordinate anti-terrorist efforts. And China has maintained unofficial contact with the Taleban, as it tries to combat Islamic terrorism spilling over into its northwestern province of Xinjiang. Some ethnic Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang are widely believed to have received combat training in Afghanistan.
Observers say that China is now facing a litmus test for its foreign policy in the 21st century. Taylor Fravel, a Stanford University scholar who studies China's border disputes, says China could begin to play much more of an active role on the world stage than it has over the last decade or more.
"Due to the links between the Taleban and Xinjiang, there is an opportunity for some sort of cooperation," he said. "It depends in part on the tactics the U.S. takes. If those tactics are NATO air strikes and ground troops, I don't think China would be very supportive because in the U.N. peacekeeping operations throughout the 90s, it has never supported strong use of force by the international community, especially where it doesn't have the permission of the host government."
Chinese security experts have reportedly been warned not to speak to reporters during this sensitive time. But some Chinese academics say that China could use its leverage within a newly-created regional security coalition, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to step up coordination among Central Asian nations in the fight against Islamic separatists. The group includes the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Zhang Xiaodong, an expert on China's relations with West Asia, says that in the future, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization may very well move beyond exchanging intelligence and training of personnel, to carrying out joint military exercises.
Mr. Zhang says that he believes that people from Xinjiang province have been trained at Afghan rebel camps, and that Xinjiang residents have also been found at Chechen rebel training camps. He says this shows that terrorism is cross-border, and not just directed at one country alone. So for its own national interest, Mr. Zhang says, China must act to combat terrorism.
But despite China's desire to improve relations with the United States, Beijing needs time to formulate its foreign policy and come up with a consensus within its notoriously unwieldy bureaucracy. And complicating matters even further, it must deal with the deep-seated resentment of many Chinese towards the United States over the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, and other tensions. Internet chat rooms here have been flooded with thousands of anti-American messages in the days following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Frank Lu, head of a Hong Kong-based human rights center, says that hundreds of Chinese scholars and activists have signed an open letter to President Bush, saying how deeply saddened they are by the outpouring of anti-American sentiment on Chinese websites.
The Chinese government says that it too deplores such comments. And the Propaganda Ministry reportedly issued an urgent notice on Wednesday, ordering the media to remove any comments glorifying terrorist attacks on the United States.
But electronic bulletin boards of the prestigious Beijing and Qinghua Universities remain full of messages such as one from a user named "Superb," who says that the Chinese people should learn from the bravery of prime suspect Osama bin Laden. Another user named "Lad" says the terrorist attacks are a lesson to the United States that hegemony will be punished.