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Peking survives its trial by Greenpeace

China and the bomb: Superpower avoids ugly clash with environmentalists after deciding on nuclear test before world ban
Has China finally mastered the art of handling a difficult situation without over-reacting? Yesterday, about 70 Chinese uniformed officials boarded a Greenpeace ship moored off Shanghai, firmly told the crew they were not welcome in Chinese territorial waters, accepted delivery of a statement calling on China to stop nuclear tests, and then escorted the vessel into international waters.Even a Greenpeace spokesman admitted the apparently unarmed Chinese boarding party had been "extremely well- behaved".

From Peking's point of view there was never any question that the MV Greenpeace would be allowed into Shanghai's harbour. But after China's nuclear test last Saturday, which was swiftly followed by an announcement that it would join a global moratorium on testing in September after one more blast, Peking seems to have been anxious to avoid an ugly confrontation.

The ship arrived off the Chinese coast about lunchtime yesterday, after leaving Manila on Saturday, the same day as China's new pledge. Earlier this week, Peking said it had refused an application for permission to bring the ship into Shanghai, although there had been contact between Chinese embassy officials and Greenpeace in Geneva and Manila.

The ship anchored at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and requested a Chinese pilot into the harbour, because of the difficult currents. China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said Shanghai authorities ordered the MV Greenpeace to leave and warned that the crew "would be responsible for all the consequences" if they refused. Then about 40 port and marine officials boarded the vessel. They were then replaced by the 70 uniformed personnel, more than double the 32 activists on the Greenpeace mission. Greenpeace was unable to identify whether the personnel were port security, naval officers or army. The crew was ordered not to use the communications equipment or answer the satellite telephone.

"They were very calm and extremely firm ... and extremely well-behaved," said Damon Moglen, a spokesmen for Greenpeace. He said no one from Greenpeace was touched or manhandled. Greenpeace officials, who had hoped to moor the ship in Shanghai and invite Chinese on board to view an anti-nuclear exhibition, explained that they had come a long way to bring a message, and they wanted to deliver it to the Chinese government.

Mr Moglen said the senior Chinese officer agreed to a "ceremony" on the ship, during which he received a formal Greenpeace statement calling on Peking to stop nuclear tests immediately and agree unconditionally to a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The captain was then escorted to the bridge of his ship, and the vessel headed for international waters accompanied by eight Chinese vessels including, according to Greenpeace, two gunboats. It will arrive in Hong Kong in about three days.

Last August, China deported eight Greenpeace activists, including two photographers, for an anti-nuclear protest in Tiananmen Square. However, two of those detained have since had no problem re-entering China, and another Greenpeace official has been back to attend a nuclear disarmament conference. "We are not looking to go out of our way to make it difficult for us to work in China," said Mr Moglen.

Greenpeace yesterday maintained that it was correct to stage the action despite Peking's commitment on joining the moratorium, accusing China of still putting "major obstacles" in the way of a nuclear test ban. Negotiations for the treaty have a 28 June deadline if it is to be ready for a September signing.

Last week, China seemed to drop its insistence that "peaceful" blasts be exempt for a test ban, and after the Saturday test unexpectedly announced it would conduct one more. Since France concluded its six controversial tests earlier this year, China has been the only country still testing and most analysts had expected more blasts.

Greenpeace insists that a close reading of the Chinese statement is that Peking will only sign a treaty if it includes a commitment to review the status of "peaceful" blasts after 10 years. It also says China's final test could destabilise the treaty signing.

China, which is racing to modernise its nuclear arsenal before a treaty is signed, maintains it has carried out fewer tests than most other powers. Last weekend's was its 44th, compared with the United States (1,030), the former Soviet Union (715), France (210), UK (45) and India (probably 1).