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China’s grip faces strain amid strengthened Russia-North Korea relations

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China appears to be maintaining its distance as Russia and North Korea solidify their relationship through a new defence pact, raising concerns over a potential shift in the power dynamics among these three authoritarian states.
This development, marked by the agreement between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has left China in a challenging position.China’s conflicting goals of maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula while countering US influence complicate its response.
China has yet to publicly comment on the pact, which mandates mutual defence assistance between Russia and North Korea in case either is attacked. Instead, it has emphasised its commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and a political resolution to the North-South divide. This muted reaction, according to experts, may indicate China’s uncertainty on how to respond.
“The Chinese response has been ‘very weak,’” noted Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Every option is a bad option,” he elaborated, suggesting Beijing might be struggling due to internal disagreements or an inability to evaluate the situation effectively.
Some viewpoints in China might see the Russia-North Korea alignment as a counterbalance to US dominance. Still, Cha believes there is considerable discomfort in China: “There is also a great deal of discomfort.” China values its influence over North Korea, fears the rise of a destabilising nuclear power nearby, and is wary of drawing the European conflict into Asia. By not voicing these concerns openly, China hopes to avoid driving Kim Jong Un closer to Vladimir Putin.
Victor Cha added, “They don’t want to push Kim Jong Un further into the arms of Vladimir Putin.”
John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, addressed the pact, stating, “The pact between Russia and North Korea ‘should be of concern to any country that believes that the UN Security Council resolutions ought to be abided by.’” The Security Council has sanctioned North Korea to halt its nuclear weapon development. Kirby further noted, “It should be of concern to anybody who thinks that supporting the people of Ukraine is an important thing to do. And we would think that that concern would be shared by the People’s Republic of China.”
Another area of concern for China could be the potential for Russia to aid North Korea’s weapons program with advanced technology.
The meeting between Putin and Kim is another event in the complex political and military landscape of East Asia, where China’s influence has grown significantly in recent decades. This development has prompted concerns in the US that China could form alliances with countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran to challenge the US-led international order. Beijing, however, disputes this notion.
Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, stated that China does not aim to form a three-way alliance with North Korea and Russia: “Beijing doesn’t want to form a three-way alliance with North Korea and Russia because it ‘needs to keep its options open.’”
A coalition could point toward a new Cold War, which Beijing seeks to avoid. Such an alliance would also conflict with China’s goals of maintaining positive relationships with Europe and improving ties with Japan and South Korea. Sun added, “The rapprochement between North Korea and Moscow ‘opens up possibilities and potentials of uncertainty, but based on what has happened so far, I don’t think that China’s national interests have been undercut by this.’”
Closer ties between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin potentially weaken Beijing’s influence and could make it “the biggest loser,” according to Danny Russel, who served as the top US diplomat for Asia during the Obama administration.





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