China Power

WikiLeaks. Blah.

The WikiLeaks revelations about China and North Korea aren’t as interesting or helpful as they first seem.

The drip, drip, drip of WikiLeaks cables continues. At this rate it will take them more than four years to release the planned 251, 287. That said, it seems to be having what is presumably one of the desired effects, namely making daily headlines across global media outlets.

All this week news sites have been leading with the latest updates. Today’s ‘revelation’ is that a senior Spanish prosecutor described Russia to a US official as a ‘mafia state’. That someone has described Russia this way in private hardly seems revelatory, and it will be interesting to see what else is in store. If I was WikiLeaks and was hoping to get the best media mileage from these documents—whatever my motives for doing so, good or ill—I’d have led with some blockbusters, dripped out some of the bland stuff in the middle, and held back some juicy tidbits to grab the headlines again once the media started to lose interest over the next few weeks.

And, as a writer on China, I was expecting a little more than what’s been provided so far, the most interesting thing being as I mentioned earlier this week that China has apparently indicated that it could live with a reunified Korea. This revelation unsurprisingly has prompted numerous headlines along the lines of ‘China Ready to Abandon North Korea’.

Maybe. But there are a couple of caveats before getting too carried away with the idea that this marks some kind of dramatic shift. The first one is that it’s been clear for a long time that there are multiple voices in Beijing on how to deal with North Korea (or indeed any country), so the fact that ‘senior’ officials have been discussing this by no means ensures that it’s a unified policy stance.

The second caveat is that it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that China is frustrated with North Korea’s latest antics. China was extremely muted in its response to the sinking of the Cheonan (indeed, it’s arguable its softly-softly approach may actually have emboldened Pyongyang) and will no doubt have seen the shelling of the South Korean island at the weekend as a bit of a slap in the face. And although Beijing would be loathe to have US troops stationed in what would become a border country, it also seems unlikely it would want to have to back North Korea up with military force should South Korea respond more forcefully (as it has promised to do) if Kim Jong-il or his generals decide to needle it again.

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China already has enough on its plate, not least with managing increasingly prickly relations with the United States (and India, and Japan and Vietnam…) If Kim isn’t careful he risks China becoming increasingly (and understandably) inclined to open the diplomatic car door and kick the ‘spoiled brat’ to the curb.

The problem is that indiscriminate leaks like this can obviously have unintended consequences and there’s a chance now that the cold light of day that has been shed on China’s views will prompt North Korea to look for firmer assurances that Beijing will still stand by it. If Pyongyang does (and it’s hard to imagine it won’t), then it’s easy to see China being even less inclined to co-ordinate with other nations in putting pressure on Pyongyang.