To challenge the power of its main rival, the United States, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has linked arms with two anti-Western states, declared a “no borders” partnership with Russia and has “unwavering” support pledged to North Korea.
But the specter of a budding bromance between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following their meeting this week in eastern Russia, may not be as welcome a development for Mr Xi as initially would be the case. corpses.
Closer ties between Pyongyang and Moscow could lead to both countries becoming less dependent on Beijing. That could reduce China’s perceived influence in global negotiations to end Russia’s war in Ukraine and curb North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I doubt Xi is overjoyed to see the love-fest between Kim and Putin taking place across the Chinese border,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. Mr. Kim and Mr. Putin, he said, have reasons to seek greater autonomy and influence from China, the “dominant power in the triangle,” by strengthening their bilateral ties.
Russia could potentially get more weapons from North Korea to intensify its war in Ukraine. North Korea could receive aid or technological assistance from Russia and increase its nuclear weapons program.
“All these activities would be on Beijing’s doorstep, but outside its control or influence,” Mr Delury said.
For China, such cooperation could prompt Russia and North Korea to escalate their provocative actions.
That could cause headaches for Beijing, which wants to avoid coming under increased pressure to rein in Pyongyang and Moscow. China has also tried to prevent its neighbors from getting closer to Washington. Mr. Kim’s missile tests have already contributed to the decision last month by South Korea and Japan to put aside their historic differences and sign a trilateral defense deal with the United States.
Perceptions about China’s dealings with North Korea and Russia matter because China, perhaps more than ever in its history, is seeking a greater share of global leadership. It believes that the unprecedented economic development of the past forty years, together with its size and military power, gives it the legitimacy to defend an alternative world order in which the United States is no longer the only dominant superpower.
Underscoring that point, China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday made a sweeping proposal to overhaul global governance by giving more power to developing countries and avoiding “camp-based confrontations,” a reference to what China sees as a U.S.-led effort to divide the world. in separate blocks reminiscent of the Cold War.
China’s call is largely aimed at the South, but also at countries with grievances against the West. But to succeed in the long term, Beijing’s goal of reshaping the world order will need broader support, including from U.S. allies around the world.
Mr Xi has had little success on that front. Its tacit support for the Russian invasion and its increasingly aggressive claims to the self-governing island of Taiwan have largely alienated China from the club of Western-led nations in a manner not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China has tried to change perceptions, at least for Ukraine, by proposing a political settlement and sending a peace envoy, but such efforts are widely dismissed in the West as largely serving Russian interests.
Even now, China must weigh how closely it wants to work with Russia and North Korea. Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, suggested in July that the three countries would conduct joint military exercises to counter trilateral cooperation in the region by the United States, South Korea and Japan, according to South Korean lawmakers who had been informed by the National Intelligence Service of the South. Employ.
For Beijing, any outward appearance of strengthening an axis of three Western opposing countries, each with territorial ambitions, can only undermine its interests, said Paul Haenle, former director for China on the National Security Council in both the George W. Bush administration as Obama administrations. Such a move would contradict China’s own criticism of “bloc politics,” he said, and raise the risk that U.S. allies would align more closely with Washington and its calls for tougher restrictions on China.
From 2007 to 2009, Mr. Haenle served as the Bush administration’s representative in the so-called six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. At the time, he said, China seemed more willing to put aside differences with the United States. The hope was that China would use its influence over Pyongyang, as the North’s only ally and main source of trade and economic aid, to bring about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Now North Korea is on a long list of issues including climate change, military-to-military communications and fentanyl, which China refuses to address unless the United States makes concessions. Beijing wants Washington to ease restrictions on access to advanced US semiconductor technology and withdraw its support for Taiwan.
“When I was part of the six-party talks, the context was much more about denuclearization with geopolitics in the background,” Mr Haenle said. “That has now been reversed.”
“China has decided to keep North Korea close for strategic leverage vis-à-vis the US,” he continued.
That makes any erosion of Chinese influence over Pyongyang a problem for Beijing. The symbolism of Mr. Kim visiting Russia, not China, for his first foreign trip in more than three years is unmistakable. China will also be wary of any technological support that Russia could provide to North Korea that could strengthen Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
“Political and economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea will not affect China too much, but if military cooperation involves nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, it will increase uncertainty in Northeast Asia and undermine China’s peripheral stability ,” said Xiao Bin, a spokesperson for the Chinese government. researcher for the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Although North Korea is China’s only treaty ally, the relationship has been rocky at times, and not always as close as “lips and teeth” as once described by Mao Zedong. Relations cooled in 2017 after China joined United Nations Security Council sanctions aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Pyongyang lashed out in unusually sharp language, accusing Beijing of “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the US”
Ties between China and North Korea improved the following year after Mr Kim traveled to Beijing and met Mr Xi for the first time. China has been nervous about a planned meeting between Mr. Kim and President Donald J. Trump that would result in a grand deal that would exclude China from future negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.
“To the extent that there is a strategic objective for China, it is largely to maintain stability. They are not interested in solving problems,” said Victor D. Cha, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Pyongyang’s erratic behavior may irritate Beijing, but it will be tolerated as long as the regime remains in power and serves as a buffer against U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
“They want the buffer,” Mr. Cha continued. “They are not in favor of unification, and they just don’t want things to get out of hand in Korea.”
Olivia Wang reporting contributed.