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Beijing's Pyongyang fatigue

Is China through with North Korea? That's the Guardian's takeaway from the exchanges between American diplomats and their Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the first batches of State Department cables released by Wikileaks on Sunday and Monday. "China has signalled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime," Simon Tisdall writes, and goes on to note evidence of "China's shift:" Nods of approval from Chinese officials for a single Korea governed from Seoul, expressions of alarm from Beijing about Pyongyang's 2009 missile tests, and a Chinese official's complaint that Kim Jong-il's regime is behaving like a "spoiled child."

It's all in there -- but sifting through the Wikileaks cables, that reading strikes me as a bit breathless. It's true that there are a couple of significant nods toward the idea of reunification. One comes in a 2009 meeting between Richard E. Hoagland and Cheng Guoping, respectively the American and Chinese ambassadors to Kazakhstan, at a hotel restaurant in the capital city of Astana. (Hoagland, incidentally, is a great reporter -- his account of the meeting is some of the best reading in the Wikileaks files.) "When asked about the reunification of Korea," Hoagland writes, "Guoping said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."

The other is some intelligence relayed from South Korean then-Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, who told U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens that Chinese officials "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance' -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China." The breaking point, Chun reportedly told Stephens, was North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, after which Chinese officials were increasingly willing to "face the new reality" that North Korea had outlived its usefulness as a buffer between Chinese and American forces. Chun (in Stephens's paraphrase) notes that the "tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies" in a newly opened North Korea might would make reunification easier to swallow, and points out that in any case, "China's strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea -- not North Korea."

Otherwise, Beijing's sharpest words -- such as Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei's remark that the Kim regime is acting like a "spoiled child" trying to get the attention of the "adult" United States -- came mostly in the wake of Pyongyang's April 2009 missile test, in the context of Beijing's efforts to engage Washington in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il's principal diplomatic goal at the time. Beijing's emissaries mostly just seem to be trying to keep the Americans at the table.

David E. Sanger's take in the New York Times better captures the essence of the cables, which is to say their ambiguity -- based on the selective evidence here, Beijing seems only somewhat less in the dark about what exactly is going on in Pyongyang than North Korea's enemies. Other corners of the Wikileaks trove are rich in plot and detail: the Obama administration's slow disenchantment with Turkey, byzantine Azeri-Iranian money laundering schemes, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh's entanglements with the U.S. military. The North Korean cables are mostly a lot of chatter around the edges of a giant question mark. As Sanger writes, they "are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia." The dominant mood of the Chinese diplomats who appear throughout them is exhaustion -- a sense, plenty familiar in Washington and Seoul, that no one really knows what to do next.

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The long twilight of the U.S.-Turkey alliance

When Barack Obama took the podium before Turkey's parliament in April 2009, in his first overseas trip as president, he delivered a speech that echoed much of the happy talk that has characterized U.S. rhetoric toward Turkey over the past decade. "Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together -- and work together to overcome the challenges of our time."

U.S. officials have repeated variations of this line since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. When I visited Turkey in March, a well-placed American source made the same point: Sure, the United States was concerned about Turkey's warming relationship with Iran and Syria, and its war of words with Israel -- but those differences paled in comparison with areas where the two countries worked together, such as on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The recent WikiLeaks document dump, however, proves that the U.S. diplomatic corps' concern about Turkey's drift away from the Western alliance runs deeper than it let on publicly. One cable reportedly describes Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister (and No. 7 on Foreign Policy's 2010 Global Thinkers list), as exerting an "exceptionally dangerous" Islamist influence on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And that's just the beginning of it. Davutoglu and other AKP leaders have scant understanding of how their foreign policy will be understood outside of Turkey, because their knowledge is "handicapped... by their Turkey- and Islam-centric vision of how they want the world to operate," according to another cable. The same cable expresses dismay at Erdogan's inability to view Islamist groups as terrorists. The report summarized the prime minister's views thusly:  "Hamas and Hizballah are the result of Western policies gone awry, a response from desperate people -- not truly terrorists."

The leaked cables also show how U.S. views toward the AKP shifted since its early days in power, when it was actively pushing a number of economic and judicial reforms meant to bolster its case for joining the European Union. One document, written in 2004 and signed by then-ambassador Eric Edelman, concludes that Erdogan "is the only partner capable of advancing toward the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe."

Even this broadly positive impression, however, contains a few nuggets that the State Department undoubtedly wishes had been kept private. While praising Erdogan as an uncommonly talented politician, it accuses him of "unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey" and "an authoritarian loner streak." Perhaps most embarrassingly, the cable charges the prime minister with harboring "a distrust of women," leading him to exclude them from any prominent role in the AKP.

By 2010, however, U.S. diplomats' frustration with Turkey's government had escalated. A cable written in January by Edelman's successor James Jeffrey condemns Turkish leaders' "special yen for destructive drama and rhetoric," and says that the government possessed "Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources," which led to it throw its supports behind "underdogs" such as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The problems are not merely in the realm of style and rhetoric. The cable laments Turkey's habit of presenting itself as the Islamic conscience of NATO, noting that "[e]xtrapolating that behavior into the even more diversity-intolerant EU is a nightmare." In the intervening six years since the 2004 cable, U.S. diplomats tempered their hope for a broad-based strategic partnership with Turkey in favor a "more issue-by-issue approach, and a recognition that Turkey will often go its own way."

Throughout the AKP's transformation of Turkish foreign policy, U.S. diplomats largely expressed their concerns in private. Publicly, their rhetoric was closer to Obama's happy talk to the Turkish parliament -- and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday largely echoed that line ahead of her meeting with Davutoglu in Washington. State Department officials assumed, no doubt correctly, that heavy-handed ultimatums from Washington would only confirm Turks' beliefs that Washington would never support their newly independent role on the international stage. Now, of course, their careful discretion has been blown apart -- and the U.S.-Turkish relationship could become one of the most prominent casualties of the WikiLeaks' document dump.

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