BEIJING — The United States is trying to enlist Beijing’s support for military action against Syria by arguing that it would help deter North Korea from using chemical weapons and threatening security in China’s neighborhood, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
China expressed support, meanwhile, for a Russian plan to avoid military intervention in the Middle Eastern country by getting the Syrian government to agree to put its chemical weapons under international supervision and eventually destroy them.
“As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing.
U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, who was in Beijing to meet with Chinese officials, said earlier Thursday that a retaliatory strike against the Syrian government would uphold the international norm that chemical weapons must not be used.
Miller said he emphasized to his Chinese counterpart that lowering the threshold for chemical weapons use could put U.S. troops at risk and threaten China’s security and that of the entire globe.
“I emphasized the massive chemical weapons arsenal that North Korea has and that we didn’t want to live in a world in which North Korea felt that the threshold for chemical weapons usage had been lowered,” Miller told reporters at a briefing following his talks Monday with Wang Guanzhong, the Chinese army’s deputy chief of staff.
It was strongly in China’s interest that there be a “strong response to Assad’s clear and massive use of chemical weapons,” Miller said he told Wang.
China has joined with Russia in blocking action against Syria at the United Nations Security Council and strongly opposes strikes on Syria by the U.S. or its allies in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. Beijing has called for political talks to end the violence that has killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced 2 million more.
Hong said China was hosting a visit starting Tuesday by Syrian opposition leaders for talks with Chinese officials. He said they were from the National Coalition for Dialogue, apparently one of a number of smaller opposition groups whose sizes, memberships and alliances are in constant flux.
China has hosted delegations from both the opposition and government since the start of the Syrian conflict nearly two years ago, telling both that it hoped for negotiations leading to a process of national reconciliation.
While China remains North Korea’s most important ally, it has repeatedly expressed concerns about the regime’s threat to regional stability and has sought to coax Pyongyang back to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks — so far unsuccessfully. Beijing joined the international community in tightening sanctions against the North over a banned missile launch and nuclear test that again raised the specter of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula just across the Yellow Sea from China.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned recently that North Korea possesses a massive stockpile of chemical weapons that threatens South Korea and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
Beijing remains firmly opposed to any intervention in Syria under a U.N. mandate, believing that its failure to oppose the no-fly zone in Libya led to foreign backing of the rebels and the ultimate downfall of the Gadhafi regime there.
China used its military to suppress the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and is wary that any precedents for intervention could ultimately be invoked against its communist government as it wrestles with unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.