War In The Balkans: Diplomacy - Talks go on as Chinese fury abates

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The Independent Online
TO MISQUOTE Humphrey Bogart: "Of all the embassies in all the cities in all the world, we had to hit that one."

The Belgrade mission that was hit by Nato missiles belonged to China - the country, after Russia, whose consent is most vital if a United Nations resolution imposing a Kosovo settlement is to succeed. But, remarkably, the signs last night were that the diplomatic destruction wreaked by the misdirected attack might be less devastating than initially feared.

On both sides of the Atlantic, a damage-limitation exercise was in full swing, even as the air strikes continued during the weekend, primarily against communications targets.

As Tony Blair sent a written apology to Peking for Nato'sblunder, diplomats laboured to ensure that the outline agreement for a settlement, secured last week by the foreign ministers of the leading Western powers and Russia, was not imperilled.

The most hopeful note, perhaps, lay in what the Chinese authorities did not say. For all their country's outrage at a "war crime", in which at least three people died, Vice- President Hu Jintao insisted that China would maintain its policy of opening up to the outside world. Above all, he gave no hint that Peking was contemplating direct diplomatic retaliation over Kosovo - the nightmare scenario that must have flashed across the minds of a thousand Western officials when they heard the embassy had been bombed.

All along, it had been assumed that China had no desire to become embroiled in a crisis 6,000 miles away, in which it had no direct stake. "If the deal's good enough for the Russians, it'll be good enough for the Chinese," was the typical prediction of one Nato official last week, after an outline plan was agreed in Germany by the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations.

But the embassy bombing threatened to change that calculation - and indeed still might, if the measured official reaction in Peking fails to keep under control demonstrations against American and British missions. If so, then the Chinese leadership might have no choice but to be obstructive in the UN over Kosovo.

The hope, however, is that, once the indignation subsides, the Chinese will act according to their interests. "The leadership wants a decent relationship with the US," one diplomat said, "not least because China badly wants to join the World Trade Organisation, something for which Washington's support is essential."

Equally reassuring, Russia's commitment to the G8 deal does not seem to have been soured by the bombing, despite a scathing condemnation from Moscow and the cancellation by Igor Ivanov, the Foreign Minister, of a weekend trip to Britain for talks with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. After talks in Germany with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder on Saturday, Moscow's envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, spoke to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia on the telephone.

The next step will be a meeting with Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, in Moscow tomorrow, after which Mr Chernomyrdin said he would be taking "concrete proposals" to the Yugoslavian leader before the weekend. "New, very important, developments connected to the Balkan settlement" had emerged, he declared on his return to Moscow yesterday.

All of which suggests that a draft UN resolution could still be forthcoming within a fortnight, as diplomats had hoped before the Chinese embassy was hit.

The UN's newly appointed envoy, the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, met Mr Chernomyrdin in Germany. Last night, he met President Jacques Chirac in Paris, before holding talks today in London with Mr Cook.

But for all the attempts to portray this activity as "business as usual", the Nato blunder has strengthened Mr Milosevic's hand, however fleetingly.

Public support in the West for the bombing campaign may falter, and the standing of the Russians has been indirectly enhanced. These considerations may make it harder still to come up with a formula that satisfies Nato - above all on the terms for a halt in the bombing, and on the make-up of the international force to keep the peace in Kosovo and allow more than 700,000 refugees to return home.

For the Western alliance, the "effective international civil and security presences" foreseen for Kosovo in the G8 statement must involve a well- armed force, with a Nato "core" and under Nato command - even though it may formally be under a UN aegis and contain a substantial Russian contingent. That was spelt out again yesterday by Mr Cook, who insisted that US and British troops had to take part if the force was to be a credible protector for the ethnic Albanians.

Most distasteful for the allies, and above all for Britain - the most hawkish of them - the weekend's developments make it more likely that Nato will be obliged to negotiate with Mr Milosevic, a man London openly brands a war criminal.

Speaking on GMTV yesterday, the Foreign Secretary insisted that Nato's objectives were non-negotiable. "We are willing to reach a settlement tomorrow, provided that Milosevic accepts those objectives," Mr Cook said.

But this is not a negotiation, and we will not make a compromise with him."

However, Mr Cook made equally clear that a full-scale ground war was not on the cards - nor was any invasion, other than a mopping-up operation against a Serb resistance battered by months of bombing. The question now is whether, after the Chinese embassy debacle, Western public opinion is ready to wait that long.