|China is widely seen as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's (left) only friend abroad [Reuters]
Chinese officials increasingly doubt the usefulness of neighbouring North Korea as an ally and would support the reunification of the peninsula if the communist state were to collapse, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.
The latest documents released by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks on Tuesday detail conversations between US officials and Chinese diplomats, as well as a senior South Korean official's discussion with his Chinese counterparts.
Cheng Guoping, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, was reported to have told Richard Hoagland, the US ambassador, that "China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term".
The remarks were made during a three-hour dinner in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital, in June 2009, according to documents published on WikiLeaks website.
Cheng was quoted as telling Hoagland that China's objectives in North Korea were to ensure they honour their commitments on non-proliferation, maintain stability, and "don’t drive [Kim Jong-il] mad".
The cable said that Cheng suggested that Kim Jong-il's decision to anoint his youngest son as his successor was driven more by Kim's deteriorating health than any carefully planned strategy.
"They had no time to plan for this," he was quoted as saying, adding that Kim Jong-il's announcement was designed to send a message to the military that he held the power.
Beijing has long been considered Pyongyang's protector, as seen during the recent crisis over the shelling of a South Korean island close to a disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea.
In the aftermath of the incident, which left at least four people dead and saw both nations increase their military readiness, Washington appealed to Beijing to rein in the North. China responded by calling for a meeting of world powers to diffuse tensions.
But in another cable from Seoul, South Korea's capital, the country's then vice-foreign minister was quoted as telling Kathleen Stephens, the US ambassador, that two high-level Chinese officials told him they "believed Korea should be unified under ROK [South Korea] control".
Chun Yung-woo, now the national security advisor to South Korea's president, said that the younger generation of Communist leaders in Beijing did not regard North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk a renewal of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, the cable said.
Those younger leaders, Chun said, "would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance".
He reportedly dismissed the prospect of Chinese military intervention in the event of North Korea's collapse, noting that China’s strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, not with North Korea.
Chun was quoted as saying that he believed that the North would cease to function as a state within three years of Kim Jong-il's death and said Beijing had "no will" to use its economic leverage to change the country's political policies.
Andrew Leung, the chairman and CEO of International Consultants Limited in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera China was in a "conundrum" over the future of North Korea.
"China doesn't want to cause an immediate collapse of the regime and force reunification because a divided Korea could at least provide a possible buffer against encirclement," he said.
"An immediate collapse of North Korea could also not be good for South Korea. If you look at the unification of the two Germany's, you have got to wait until the conditions are right and it could drag down the economy in South Korea quite dramatically."
The diplomatic memos were released as North Korea announced details of an expanded nuclear programme, saying it has thousands of working centrifuges in a new uranium enrichment plant.
In the cable from the US ambassador to Kazakhstan, China's Cheng described the North's nuclear programme as "very troublesome".
He said that China "opposes North Korea's nuclear testing and is working to achieve peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," the cable said.
Choe Tae Bok, the chairman of North Korea's parliament, left Pyongyang on Tuesday for a diplomatic visit to China , but neither country has announced the purpose of the trip.
Al Jazeera and agencies