WikiLeaks Asia: "There but for the grace of God"


TAIPEI, Taiwan — A "visibly flustered" Chinese diplomat "temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese" when his U.S. counterpart sprang an allegation on him in Kyrgyzstan. North Korea's leaders are "psychopathic types, with a 'flabby old chap' for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation." And China's point man for six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program is "an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who 'knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about nonproliferation and is hard to communicate with because he doesn’t speak English.'"

Those are some of the juicy bits from the U.S. diplomatic dispatches from Asia posted to the web by WikiLeaks. But while some observers are calling the massive cable dump a diplomatic catastrophe, most Asia-based experts have a lower-decibel reaction.

They say the cables mostly confirm what people already knew or guessed, though there's some surprise over lax U.S. security measures. The fiasco may even generate sympathy for the U.S., some said.

"It proves diplomats are flesh and blood — they're not as cold and boring as they look," Taiwanese commentator Antonio Chiang wrote in the Apple Daily. "This could actually help their image."

Brian Bridges, an expert on East Asian politics at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said most of the cables he'd seen "confirmed things that I would have expected," but he was struck by two cables relating to North Korea and a post-collapse scenario.

The first reports a South Korean diplomat arguing that China could live with a re-unified Korea under South Korean control, though Bridges and other experts caution that this view may not be reliable or as widespread in China as the Korean official believes. "We have to be a little careful about that one."

The second surprise was indications in a cable from January that several North Korean diplomats have quietly defected while posted overseas, said Bridges — defections that had not been made public.

"The fact that they took the step of defecting implies that within the North Korean elite, there are serious doubts about the sustainability of the North Korean system," said Bridges. "If you haven’t got your family with you, it can be extremely tough for family members left behind in North Korea, so in order to make that decision, people will think twice or three times about that step."

Others were also struck by the cables' illumination of the China-Pyongyang-Seoul dysfunctional triangle, and by diplomats' extensive study and preparation for a unified Korea and what it would mean for China and the region.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the public is too absorbed with tensions on the Korean peninsula to pay much attention to Cablegate, said Koji Murata, an international relations expert at Kyoto's Doshisha University. But he said he and others were surprised at the massive cyber-security breach. "Some Japanese may feel that the American security system for protecting secrets is so fragile and weak."

Murata said U.S. cables may fuel arguments that Japan bows too much to U.S. pressure, particularly in relation to Tokyo's recent moves to relax a ban on exporting its military technology. "Many Japanese feel that this policy change may have been done under American influence or pressure," said Murata. "Some may feel this is evidence that Japan is too dependent on the U.S."

Chinese commentators had a mostly low-key reaction. With the exception of some choice remarks by Chinese officials about "spoiled child" North Korea, many of the cables from China released so far have been pedestrian (says China's top diplomat to U.S. visitors about China-U.S. cooperation: “If we expand the pie for the common interest, the pie will be larger and more delicious.”)

But Chiang, the Taiwanese commentator, said in a phone interview that Beijing is likely fretting, since information control is "vital for the survival of their regime" and authoritarian governments like China's are a stated WikiLeaks target. "They must be very alarmed," said Chiang. "There must be a lot of emergency meetings."

Taiwan, for its part, is bracing for the publication of nearly 3,500 cables that WikiLeaks claims to have from the American Institute in Taiwan, America's de facto embassy in the absence of formal ties, and one of its most sensitive diplomatic posts. But Chiang said he doubts anything "surprising" will emerge, since Taiwan's rowdy talk shows and manic 24-hour-media has already chewed through most everything involving U.S.-Taiwan relations.

One possibility, said Chiang, was cables that could "confirm Beijing's suspicions" about former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian (nickname "Ah-Bian"), now jailed on corruption charges. Last decade Beijing and Washington accused Chen of stirring up tensions by pushing the envelope on independence; AIT cables could further tarnish Chen's image. "It will be the nail in Ah-Bian's coffin," said Chiang.

Chiang noted that we'd only seen the "tip of the iceberg," since just 300 out of some 250,000 cables have been posted. But so far, he and others say the massive leak hasn't appeared to have done as much damage as some feared, at least in East Asia.

Lingnan University's Bridges said "people are going to be a bit more wary about what they say to American diplomats," but that their Asian counterparts will probably sympathize.

"I think there will be a sort of 'there but for the grace of God go I' kind of view — the Americans have been caught out and this is very embarrassing, but it could have been them."

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