Monthly Archives: November 2010

Our Appearance Has Changed

WordPress has switched us to its new Pilcrow theme, as it is doing for all blogs that used PressRow. Our side and main bars have flipped places as a result, as regular readers will notice. We have also taken the opportunity to change our header. We had a certain affection for the dog-eared books that PressRow used as its default image, not to mention a certain lack of digital graphics skills to replace it, but we don’t care for Pilcrow’s library. So we dug up a favorite old photograph from a visit to Xian years ago which was transmuted into what you see above. We also like to think that it serves as a reminder that in any group, you can never be quite sure which one is the Bystander.


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China Gives First Reaction To Leaked U.S. Diplomatic Cables

Beijing’s first public comment on the leaked U.S. State Department cables published by the online whistleblower WikiLeaks has been a short, sharp no comment from the foreign ministry. These are already choppy waters for the U.S. not much worth China stirring up further at this point.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei did add that “We hope the U.S. side will properly handle relevant issues”, the issues being taken to be the leaking rather than the substance of the leaks. We hear of some smug tut-tuting among some officials at what is seen as another sign of American government weakness and incompetence.

Among the censoring classes, we understand, there is a more sobering view that the leaks only reinforce the value of their work and a need to redouble efforts. We wonder, though, if nagging at the back of some minds is the thought that there but for the grace of God…, and even a tiny concern that it is a case of when not if a whistleblower leaps the Great Firewall with 250,000 state documents.

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Cablegate: Grim South Korean Take On China’s Leverage Over North Korea

A leaked U.S. State Department cable from February this year, newly made public by WikiLeaks, reports a grim view of China’s leverage over North Korea held by South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, Chun Yung-woo. Chun reportedly told American officials that China would be unable to prevent North Korea’s collapse within two to three years of the death of Kim Jong Il, and that it had “far less influence on North Korea ‘than most people believe’.” Chun also said that “Beijing had ‘no will’ to use its economic leverage to force a change in Pyongyang’s policies and the [North Korean] leadership ‘knows it’.”

Without China being prepared to push North Korea to the brink of collapse, Chun thought, Kim’s regime would continue not to take any meaningful steps on denuclearization. Chun also denigrated the abilities of Wu Dawei, head of China’s delegation to the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the peninsula, whom he characterized as a bombastic hardline nationalist blowhard and whom he said was “the most incompetent official in China”.

Wu stood in contrast, Chun said, to the younger generation of China’s Korea policymakers who saw little value to China in North Korea acting as a buffer state between it and South Korea, and who would also tolerate a Seoul-controlled unification government on the peninsula in the event of North Korea’s collapse, provided it was not hostile to Beijing. They would “not welcome” U.S. troops north of the DMZ, however, Chun ventured, but would be reassured by trade and investment opportunities for Chinese companies. Chun also noted that Toyko’s preference was to keep the peninsular divided.

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Still Awaiting China Surprises From Leaked U.S. Cables

The leaked U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks so far, at least those concerning China that we have seen coming from the U.S. embassy in Beijing, are mostly the diplomatic equivalent of sales-call reports: Mr X said A; Mr Y said Mr Z told him B and so on. As such many are mundane reportage of officials, advisors and academics who know they are talking to American officials, even if they may have thought at the time they were speaking in private.

Much of it is on the same level of observation that we read in the serious broadsheets attributed to unnamed government officials, except the diplomats name their sources, which provides some prurient interest. That is one reason that there are no great surprises to date. Another is that it takes a sharp pen to break out of the standard format cables follow, though these cables are refreshingly free of the polysyllabic obscurantism that wrings any meaning from most public statements by diplomats. English is, it happily turns out, the first language of U.S. senior officials after all.

Such communications are the string — hundreds of thousands of pieces of it — from which foreign ministries and security advisors form their analyses and create their policies. We have only a few pieces of that string so far that relate to Sino-American relations, all of it a year or more old, and most of it about Iran and North Korea. They do underline how much common cause Beijing and Washington have in keeping two volatile areas of the world from getting “out of control” through the acquisition of nuclear weapons, how much Beijing wants Washington to take the lead in bilateral talks with both Pyongyang and Teheran to bring them into international six-party talks to stop nuclear proliferation, how much more patient Beijing is than Washington with the diplomatic process and how much less faith Beijing has in the effectiveness of sanctions and how much more it has in the benefits of rewarding Teheran and Pyongyang for good behavior.

As we noted yesterday, our eye was caught by some assertions that Beijing’s support for Teheran wasn’t unconditional, and that it had told the Iranians that progress on the nuclear anti-proliferation talks would make continuing Chinese investment in Iran’s energy sector more likely. We wonder if future leaked cables, if published (there are more than 3,000 on China to come), will reveal the same attitude towards Pyongyang, as we believe has been happening. Most of all we are waiting to read cable traffic on the issues that get to the heart of Sino-American relations — regional defense and security and the handling of the global financial crisis and the associated macroeconomic imbalances, trade and currency issues.

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Leaked Cables Show U.S. Frustration At China’s Role In North Korea-Iran Trade

The leaks of U.S. State Dept. cables by the online whistleblower WikiLeaks as far as we can tell so far don’t reveal any great new secrets about Sino-American relations. We’ve turned up only a few China-related cables in the batches published by some newspapers, which are not the full set shown to them, so it is thin pickings at this point, though there will be thousands more to come. (WikiLeaks’ leaked cables from the U.S. Beijing embassy here.) Yet one of the few that has been made public initially underlines the depth of frustration felt in Washington about its inability to stop China playing the middleman in North Korea’s weapons trade with Iran.

A 2007 document signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (via Guardian) mentions “about 10” occasions between December 2006 and August 2007 on which the Americans said North Korean shipments of jet vanes for ballistic missiles passed through Beijing. The vanes were trans-shipped to commercial passenger flights out of Beijing Airport, with the Chinese authorities ignoring American requests to intervene to stop them, despite the Bush administration raising the issue several times at the highest levels.

The leaked cable also says Iran was trying to buy tungsten-copper alloy plates from Dalian Sunny Industries to make the vanes itself should its North Korean supply dry up. Separate cables also have the Americans accusing Chinese firms last year of supplying Iran with materials and assistance for making chemical weapons and saying that Iran was trying to buy gyroscopes and carbon fiber for its ballistic missiles from Chinese companies.

If the jet vanes were missile related, as the U.S. claims, their trans-shipment would have been in contravention of a U.N. Security Council resolution preventing their international trade and China has publicly said that it won’t help any country develop ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. But there is plenty of wiggle room within those constraints for anyone who didn’t want to look too closely.

At the same time, a cable from the U.S. embassy in Beijing dated March 2009 says that senior Foreign Ministry officials were telling the Americans that China’s good political and economic relations with Iran weren’t unconditional, that China didn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran (and was not 100% certain Iran was developing nuclear weapons, as opposed to “nuclear capability”, which would give it some regional clout). The officials also said China was supporting international talks on the issue but that the U.S. should take the lead with direct negotiations. They also said that they had told the Iranians “not to take China’s economic interests in Iran for granted” and that progress on the nuclear issue would “create a foundation” for further Chinese investment in the energy sector.

Improved ties with Saudi Arabia makes Beijing less reliant on Iran for oil and gas. Another cable, on the occasion of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year, notes some prodding from the kingdom for China to get in line with international efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and non-specific promises that Saudi Arabia would assure what is now the largest customer for its oil of adequate supplies should its purchases from Iran be interrupted.

Without providing the supporting cable in its database of the leaks , The Guardian also reports that

the hacker attacks which forced Google to quit China in January were orchestrated by a senior member of the Politburo who typed his own name into the global version of the search engine and found articles criticising him personally.

The New York Times, another recipient of the leaked cables, adds that

The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said.

The New York Times also reports that “American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would ‘help salve’ China’s ‘concerns about living with a reunified Korea’ that is in a ‘benign alliance’ with the United States.”

A cable from May 2009 also reveals that China felt that the “lever of economic development” had not been used effectively on North Korea in the six-party talks, and that the further sanctions being pushed by the West wouldn’t work. As with Iran, Chinese officials have been telling the Americans that they need to take the lead through a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang to get the international talks going again. A cable from December 2009, summarizing China’s advice to the U.S. on what reassurances it should give North Korea about its intentions, gives a good sense of why Kim Jong Il’s regime feels its back is against the wall.

It also contains the best piece of diplomatic understatement in all the leaked cables we’ve seen. Wang Jiarui, who heads the Party’s department dealing with other Communist Parties, told the Americans that “it was impossible to predict North Korean behavior through ‘normal’ means of reading public indicators”.

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No Time To Buy Time On The Korean Peninsula

When you don’t know what to do with a problem, punting it to a committee is usually  a safe option. It buys time to come up with an answer if nothing else. That is what China has done with North Korea’s most recent outburst of belligerency in calling for international six-party “emergency talks” to be held in Beijing in early December.

The six would be the same sextet that have been fitfully trying to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear program — the two Koreas, the U.S., Russia, Japan and China. Those talks have been stalled since April, 2009. Neither South Korea nor Japan have shown much enthusiasm for going along with China’s latest proposal; the U.S. and Russia are still to be heard from, but are likely to be as non-committal.

Meanwhile, the chairman of North Korea’s parliament, who is close to his country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, has been invited to Beijing next week. With the four days of joint U.S.-South Korea naval exercises now underway in the Yellow Sea and North Korea, according to South Korean press reports, deploying surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea and readying land-based surface-to-air missiles, a bit of firm two-party talking between China and North Korea might be the most effective — and most needed — emergency diplomacy.


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Drawing Lines In The Yellow Sea

China gets the U.S. aircraft carrier off its shores that it previously managed to browbeat Washington to keep at bay. There is no more provocative symbol of naval power to Beijing. The Peoples’ Liberation Army is building a carrier but doesn’t have one in its fleet yet. The arrival of the USS George Washington and its battle fleet only serves to underline that.

The joint naval exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting from Sunday in the Yellow Sea following North Korea’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island may spill over into the 200 mile exclusive economic zone that China claims in the Yellow Sea (and is asserting vigorously in the East China and South China Seas). The exercises will likely spill over the line that Pyongyang, if barely anyone else, recognizes as the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas. If they do, Pyongyang has promised a “sea of fire” in what it calls the West Sea of Korea. A display of U.S. naval prowess in retaliation would be the last thing Beijing would want to see at this point.

The military cartography is typically tortuous. Yeonpyeong and two other South Korean islands lie well to the North Korea side of the main part of Pyongyang’s demarcation line, though they lie in tiny enclaves that Pyongyang, bizarrely, recognizes as South Korean waters and which it connects with two narrow channels to undisputed South Korean waters. But the three islands lie on the South Korea side of the Northern Limit Line that the U.N. and most of the rest of the world recognizes as the maritime boundary between the two Koreas, and which is to the north of North Korea’s line. The disputed part of the Yellow Sea is plenty large enough for trouble, and gives Pyongyang a by-definition reason to say it is being attacked — and to fire back — if any foreign guns are fired in those waters, whether directed at it or not.

All of which will make policymakers in Beijing wonder even harder over the next few days if their long-standing unwavering support of the ever unpredictable Kim Jong Il’s regime is worth it. A tail can wag a dog only so often.

Their fear is not so much a flood of refugees should Kim’s dynastic regime collapse in chaos if Beijing withdrew its political and economic lifelines. It would be an inconvenience but a manageable humanitarian operation. Their bigger fear is of a pro-Washington government replacing Kim’s, either Seoul-led or under a U.N. mandate, and the possibility of the 25,000 U.S. military personel now in South Korea being deployed up to the Chinese border in an area that Beijing’s plan is to make into a economic tributary state; the pacification through prosperity strategy that it tends to deploy in troublesome quarters.

GIs, even GIs in blue hats, just a river’s width away from Liaoning and Jilin provinces would be an affront to a leadership in Beijing that is intent on making its mark as the region’s power. It would make a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea seem like a fraternal visit.


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