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Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 4, 2010


The gossip is so good at times in the classified dispatches leaked to and then published by WikiLeaks that it can be difficult to get beyond it. Who can resist characterizations of Italy's prime minister as “feckless, vain, and ineffective,” of Russia's prime minister and former president as an “alpha dog,” or of Zimbabwe's president as a “crazy old man”?

But if you are disciplined enough to get beyond such amusements, you will be rewarded. There is enough material here for a class—no, make that a course—in foreign policy.

For instance, we learn that several years ago U.S. officials tipped off their Chinese counterparts that North Korea was shipping ballistic missile components to Iran on commercial aircraft transiting China. We also learn that Beijing did little to impede such flows, more concerned with maintaining good relations with Tehran (and the accompanying trade and energy deals) and Pyongyang than with thwarting nuclear and missile proliferation.

The lesson is that China approaches foreign policy largely through a prism of domestic concerns. Among the cables we also read of a gathering debate within China about its ties to North Korea. Beijing mostly resists exploiting the considerable leverage it harbors vis-à-vis its neighbor and longtime client. Yet one Chinese official describes North Korea as a “spoiled child”; others see it as a threat to world security. The day may be approaching when Chinese officials recognize Pyongyang as the liability it is and accept Korean unification; the United States and South Korea are seen talking about what commercial incentives and military assurances to offer China to bring about just such an evolution.

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