US & Canada

Wikileaks cables: Major themes

Chinese tourists in Dandong, 27 November
Image caption China's border with North Korea is something of a tourist attraction

Putting aside the hullabaloo about the release of the US cables, there is much in them that throws light on some of the world's most pressing diplomatic problems.

Take North Korea for example. It now appears that there are real doubts within the Chinese leadership about the future of the North as a separate entity. These doubts, if true, could have important policy implications. If the North started to implode, would China intervene?

The balance of evidence from the cables is indicative of a change of mind by China but not conclusive. There is the statement from South Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, whose views were reported in a cable from US ambassador Kathleen Stephens.

"Chun claimed [Chinese official name removed] believed Korea should be unified under ROK [South Korea] control.. [Other officials], Chun said, were ready to "face the new reality" that the DPRK [North Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state."

However, Mr Chun also noted that Wu Dawei, a hard-line Chinese official, had been reappointed as head of China's delegation at the six-party talks. He called this "a very bad thing". The cable said the South Koreans called Mr Wu "an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who 'knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about non-proliferation and is hard to communicate with because he doesn't speak English'".

If Mr Wu is influential therefore little will change.

There is also a report of a diplomat's delight - a three-hour dinner hosted by the Chinese ambassador Cheng Guoping for the US envoy Richard Hoagland in Kazakhstan.

Hoagland reports Cheng as saying about the Koreas: "China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."

Not much change there either.

Iran

Iran is another key crisis about which new information has emerged from these cables.

The most interesting statements perhaps have come from the Gulf Arab leaders, almost all of whom expressed support for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The leaders include King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, quoted as saying that the Americans should "cut off the head of the snake".

But it is also notable that other Saudi officials are shown to be more cautious. At the same meeting with the Americans in April 2008, the reporting telegram stated that the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal "called instead for much more severe US and international sanctions on Iran, including a travel ban and further restrictions on bank lending. [Saudi intelligence chief] Prince Muqrin echoed these views."

And three months later a senior Saudi Foreign Ministry official Mojahid Ali Alwahbi was quoted in another cable: "Alwahbi strongly advised against taking military action to neutralise Iran's programme. Rather, establishing a US-Iranian dialogue was the best course of action."

So perhaps Saudi opinion is not solid.

US nuclear weapons in Gulf?

Image caption Prince Andrew (R) has been drawn in to the Wikileaks controversy

A new element was the suggestion by another Saudi official, Prince Turki al-Kabeer, that the US might station nuclear weapons in the Gulf Arab countries to counter a threat from Iran. This came in a meeting in Jan 2009.

"[Prince Turki] explained that if Iran tries to produce nuclear weapons, other countries in the Gulf region would be compelled to do the same, or to permit the stationing of nuclear weapons in the Gulf to serve as a deterrent to the Iranians."

The cable noted: "This is the most explicit mention we have heard of Saudi willingness to see nuclear weapons deployed in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council countries] as a deterrent to Iran."

Israel

A number of the cables deal with meetings on Iran between Israeli and US officials. These predictably consist mainly of Israeli warnings about the Iranian threat. Interestingly though the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak gave a hostage to fortune when he stated in June 2009 that there was a window during which Iran could be attacked but that the window would close in 18 months. According to his timetable, the window closes at the end of this year. It will be interesting to learn if he thinks it could be kept open longer.

Gaps

There are also some disappointing gaps in the cables, reflecting perhaps the fact that the most secret dispatches are in a less accessible computer system. But among the leaked cables, there has been very little about Russia so far.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came unexpectedly from Prince Andrew, whose behaviour at a brunch for business people in Kyrgyzstan attracted adverse comments from the US ambassador present.

In a nugget of information which shows how major powers often operate, the prince related a story from Azerbaijani President Aliyev. The US cable said: "Aliyev had received a letter from President Medvedev telling him that if Azerbaijan supported the designation of the Bolshevik artificial famine in Ukraine as "genocide" at the United Nations, 'then you can forget about seeing Nagorno-Karabakh [an enclave in Azerbaijan disputed with Armenia] ever again'."

This echoes another cable showing how the US put pressure on Germany not to take action against CIA officers in the abduction of a terrorist suspect. It was phrased more delicately than President Medvedev's warning but the message was the same. A senior US diplomat, the cable said, had urged the German Government to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US".

This is the real warp and weft of big-power diplomacy.

paul.reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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