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”.