China is watching warily as Putin and Kim forge new ‘alliance’

Analysis by Nectar Gan, CNN

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

As Russian President Vladimir Putin glided through the crowd-lined streets of Pyongyang atop a luxury Mercedes-Benz alongside his North Korean host Kim Jong Un last week, the two autocrats’ most important partner was watching from the sidelines hundreds of miles away in Beijing.

Five years ago, Xi Jinping was offered the same open-top ride with Kim when he became the first Chinese leader to visit Pyongyang in 14 years. At the time, the two leaders vowed to strengthen ties and deepen cooperation, but the language paled in comparison with the “breakthrough” new partnership struck by Kim and Putin.

In a wide-ranging treaty spanning political, trade, investment, and security cooperation, North Korea and Russia pledged to use all available means to provide immediate military assistance in the event the other is attacked.

Putin said Russia and North Korea have ramped up ties to a “new level.” Kim, meanwhile, called the new “alliance” a “watershed moment” in bilateral relations.

The new landmark defense pact agreed by the two nuclear-armed regimes rattled the United States and its Asian allies. Japan voiced “grave concerns” about Putin’s vow not to rule out cooperation with Pyongyang on military technology. South Korea responded by convening an emergency national security meeting and said it would now consider sending arms to Ukraine.

In contrast, the reaction from China, the main political and economic patron for both Russia and North Korea, has been all but muted.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the treaty, calling it a bilateral matter between Russia and North Korea.

Beneath the official reticence, however, China is likely watching warily, analysts say.

China ‘aims to control the situation’

The deepening ties between two wayward autocrats risk creating new uncertainty for Xi, who needs peace and stability in Northeast Asia as he grapples with a raft of domestic challenges, especially the slowing economy.

Beijing is worried that Moscow’s assistance to Pyongyang – especially on military technology – would further enable and embolden the erratic Kim regime, which has drastically accelerated the buildup of nuclear weapons and missile programs, said Liu Dongshu, an assistant professor focusing on Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

“When it comes to the North Korea issue, China aims to control the situation and prevent escalation, but it also does not want North Korea to completely collapse either” – a scenario that Beijing fears would allow the US to extend its control right to its doorstep, Liu said.

Previously, Russia had been largely aligned with China on the issue, but its desperate need for North Korea to support its grinding war in Ukraine risks undermining the delicate balance.

Kim Jong Un takes Chinese leader Xi Jinping on a ride through the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 21, 2019.

Russia has received more than 10,000 shipping containers – the equivalent of 260,000 metric tons of munitions or munitions-related material – from North Korea since September, according to a US statement in February. Both Russia and North Korea have rejected the claim.

And while the US has accused China of providing Russia with dual-use goods that bolster the warring nation’s military industrial complex, Beijing has refrained from offering direct military assistance to Putin and has steered clear of supporting Kim’s nuclear and missile programs.

“If Putin provides more support to North Korea on nuclear issues, including some technical assistance, it will become more difficult for China to control the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” Liu said.

The mutual defense pact signed by Kim and Putin harks back to a 1961 treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That deal was replaced with one that offered much weaker security assurances after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But North Korea’s mutual defense treaty with China, also signed in 1961, remains in place after multiple renewals.

The Sino-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance is the only formal military alliance treaty China has signed with another country, though Beijing doesn’t admit it as such and remains deliberately vague about whether China is obliged to automatically come to North Korea’s defense when a war breaks out.

Similarly, it remains unclear what Russia and North Korea are willing – and able – to do for one another under the new defense pact.

The new treaty comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where Kim has ramped up fiery rhetoric and scrapped a longstanding policy of seeking peaceful reunification with South Korea. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, a formal peace treaty was never signed between the two Koreas, leaving them technically in a state of war.

But the political message of the pact is loud and clear. Driven by a shared hostility to the US and its allies, the two autocratic nations are seeking to undermine and create an alternative to the Western-led global order – a goal shared by China.

Speaking after his meeting with Kim, Putin rankled against what he called “the imperialist policy of the United States and its satellites.”

Putin and Xi attend a concert together in Beijing on May 16, 2024.

A month ago, Putin and Xi delivered a similar swipe at the US during the Russian leader’s visit to Beijing. In a sweeping joint statement, the two “old friends” took aim at what they described as a global security system defined by US-backed military alliances – and pledged to work together to counter it.

Western observers have warned against a loose but growing coordination of interests among China, Russia, North Korea and Iran – something one senior US military commander recently likened to a new “axis of evil.”

As Moscow and Pyongyang deepen their alliance, Beijing would be cautious to keep a distance, Liu said, adding that “China certainly doesn’t want to be seen as part of a new Axis.”

But despite the absence of Xi, China would have been the elephant in the room throughout Putin and Kim’s meeting.

“Any such meeting will also include discussion of China,” said Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who focuses on the Korean Peninsula.

“Russia will know full well that China does not want to be left out of any substantial negotiations involving North Korea, not least since China is far more important – compared to Russia – to North Korea.”

Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said China doesn’t feel it can control the pace and extent of the deepening engagement between Russia and North Korea.

“But they do know that China plays an irreplaceable role for both Russia and North Korea,” she said.

China remains the largest trade partner to both Russia and North Korea, providing a crucial lifeline to the heavily sanctioned economies. Beijing also lends significant political support and diplomatic cover to the two international pariahs.

“China doesn’t think that an alliance between Russia and North Korea would be a betrayal,” said Liu with the City University of Hong Kong.

“Neither of the two countries has the capacity to betray China. They still need to rely on China despite their alliance.”

CNN’s Simone McCarthy contributed reporting.

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