WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- Something fundamental has changed in the way the United States relates to the world. Suddenly one country seems to be dominating U.S. policymakers for the first time since the end of the Cold War downgraded the Kremlin as the central focus of Washington's attention.
With the exception of Iraq, the three biggest foreign-policy headaches the Bush administration faces are all dependent on China. And one of those three, the strong American pressure on China to revalue its currency by 10 percent in order to ease the pressure on the U.S. trade deficit by raising the prices of China's exports, relates directly to one of President Bush's main domestic concerns.
The other two issues are the unfinished business of what Bush once called "the axis of evil." In his State of the Union address in January 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush cited Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the three members of the axis. The Iraqi problem has hardly been solved, but at least the United States has the overwhelming responsibility.
But for North Korea and Iran, China seems to be holding the vital strings. The crisis over Iran's nuclear program is proceeding with the slow, predictable pace of a minuet. The three European allies of Britain, France and Germany are trying to persuade and cajole Iran to give up its attempt to build a full nuclear fuel cycle that would give it the ability to make nuclear weapons.
It seems clear from inspections run by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has been concealing a weapons program for many years, with some of the technology coming from the freelancing operations of Pakistan's top nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. The Europeans are trying to put this genie back in the bottle, with the threat that if Iran does not come back into compliance with the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty it will be formally reported to the U.N. Security Council for a vote on sanctions.
This is proceeding slowly, as everyone waits for the outcome of Iran's presidential elections next month. But the election is unlikely to put a moderate in power, and even if it did, he would be unlikely to accede to the European pressure when public opinion seems to want Iran to become a nuclear power. After all, Russia, Pakistan, India and Israel are all nuclear powers in its neighborhood.
But if the Europeans fail to reach a satisfactory deal and the issue goes to the United Nations, it there confronts China, which holds a veto over U.N. action. China gets 14 percent of its oil from Iran. Iran's Petroleum Minister Bijan Zanganeh last year told China Business Weekly that Tehran would prefer that China replace Japan as the biggest customer for its oil and gas. "Japan is our No 1 energy importer due to historical reasons, but we would like to give preference to exports to China," Zanganeh said during his visit to Beijing last October.
In the biggest deal of all, worth an estimated $70 billion, China's Sinopec Group will buy 250 million tons of Iranian liquefied natural gas over 25 years and help develop the giant Yadavaran gas field -- which should in the process turn Sinopec into a major player in energy technology.
China's oil imports rose 40 percent last year, and the rise will continue. By 2020 China is projected to have up to 140 million private cars on its roads, six times as many as it has now. The prospect of China offending Iran by agreeing to impose U.N.-mandated sanctions on its major energy supplier seems fanciful. In short, in trying to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, the Bush administration does not so much have an Iran problem as it has a China problem.
The same might be said of North Korea, which depends on China for its energy supplies. The one time North Korea is known to have succumbed to outside pressure is when China closed the pipeline for three days for "technical reasons." North Korea got the message and retuned to the six-nation talks that may soon be on again after a year in abeyance.
Briefing the European allies in Brussels this week, Christopher Hill, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the United States wanted the six-party talks (including North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China) to succeed, but if not -- "one option we do not have is to walk away."
The problem is that China appears to see the United States as the problem, rather than North Korea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's Yang Xiyu, Beijing's senior official on the North Korean nuclear issue, last week dismissed U.S. warnings of a possible North Korean nuclear test and told the New York Times, "It is true that we do not yet have tangible achievements (in stopping North Korea's weapons program). But a basic reason for the unsuccessful effort lies in the lack of cooperation from the U.S. side."
Yang laid part of the blame directly on Bush; by calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "tyrant" last month, Bush "destroyed the atmosphere" for talks, the Chinese official said.
There is currently a debate within the Bush administration between those who have not quite given up on the six-party process and on getting China's support, and those -- based mainly in Vice President Dick Cheney's national security staff and in the Pentagon -- who think North Korea and China are each in their own way stringing the gullible Americans and South Koreans along.
These hard-liners make the point that a nuclear-armed Korea is more of an Asian than a U.S. problem. If China wants to live with a future united Korea that combines the South's industrial power with the North's nukes, and with a Japan that has gone nuclear in its own self-defense, then China will have to live with the consequences of its own folly.
Some of this hard-line thinking is now accepted by Hill, who noted in Brussels that "it must be understood by all -- especially the North Koreans -- that nuclear weapons are not a U.S. problem. They are everyone's problem."
Above all, of course, they are China's problem, since China is the only country with decisive leverage over North Korea, just as it may also be the country with the most access and influence in Tehran these days, and just as it is the country whose purchase in the last year of some $200 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds and securities has helped finance the U.S. trade deficit that fuels China's economic boom.
China is far from being a global superpower on the scale of the old Soviet Union, but already we can discern the emergence of a new world in which most of the main concerns of the United States relate directly to China, a world that is starting to look bipolar rather than dominated by a single lonely superpower, with Beijing's Forbidden City playing the role of the old Kremlin.
And what makes this really odd is that most of the world's leaders are currently preparing for the annual summit of the G8, to be in Scotland this year with British Prime Minister Tony Blair as host. Bush will be joined by the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Canada and Russia. The obvious absentee is China. Maybe the heirs to the Middle Kingdom think the G8 is beneath them.