Shortly after the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Department of Defense announced that it had successfully test-launched an intermediate-range missile.
The test came shortly after the Pentagon revealed that is was considering new missile deployments in East Asia, with Japan or South Korea among the primary potential locations for installation.
The North Korean government slammed the recent missile test, claiming that such undertakings risked sparking a “new Cold War” in East Asia.
Meanwhile, China and Russia engaged in a heated exchange with U.S. officials at a UN Security Council meeting convened to address Washington’s intent to deploy missiles in East Asia.
Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang’s most recent expression of skepticism over potential developments in American defense policies in East Asia comes shortly after an unprecedented display of Sino-Russian defense coordination in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, namely the mid-air encounter involving the Chinese, Russian, and ROK air forces last July.
The DPRK can hardly be described as equally important to both erstwhile partners
From Washington’s perspective, it is all too easy to perceive the PRC and the Russian Federation as comprising a single axis supporting the DPRK.
Certainly there is no doubt Beijing and Moscow have largely overlapping interests on the Korean peninsula that have allowed the two powers to form a partnership of convenience that buttresses the DPRK.
Yet behind the veneer of alignment are significant differences in North Korea’s place in the hierarchy of China and Russia’s respective foreign policy priorities. Furthermore, in the long term there is a definite potential for Chinese and Russian interests on the Korean peninsula to be in significant misalignment.
Perhaps the most significant force behind the PRC and Russia’s alignment over North Korea is a shared opposition to American policy in the region.
Yet even though the DPRK is far from being the sole priority of Beijing’s foreign policy, North Korea is considerably more important for China’s relations with the United States than it is in the scope of Russia-U.S. ties.
Beijing views the DPRK as a strategic asset against U.S. power in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s value to the PRC is nevertheless at least partially contingent upon the extent to which it affects China’s hedging strategy toward the U.S.
Pyongyang, for its part, is aware of this and has sought to utilize its own warm relations with China as well as the current Sino-American rivalry to its advantage.
During the various meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in 2018, for example, North Korea tried not only to strengthen its strategic communication with China but also attempted to gain leverage in the context of the China-U.S. strategic competition.
Moscow and Washington’s interests on the Korean peninsula are, for their part, hardly compatible.
Nevertheless, compared with China-U.S. relations, North Korea occupies a significantly lower level in the pecking order of hot button issues between the Kremlin and the United States, which remain focused primarily on strategic relations and their respective interests in Europe and the Middle East.
Thus while North Korea-related issues may comprise a significant area of collaboration in the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, the DPRK can hardly be described as equally important to both erstwhile partners.
Furthermore, a notable discrepancy exists between Beijing and Moscow over how they envision the Korean peninsula in their long-term interests.
The joint Sino-Russian air patrol and subsequent standoff between the Russian and South Korean air forces have prompted warnings over the possibility that closer alignment with the People’s Republic of China over Korean affairs could entrap the Russian Federation in regional conflicts in Asia.
The assertion that Beijing could drag Moscow into a Northeast Asian conflict touches upon an undeniable reality about increased cohesion between Beijing and Moscow over Korea.
From a long-term, strategic standpoint, Beijing’s rising influence in Northeast Asia… will not serve the Kremlin’s vision for the Korean peninsula
Few, if any, doubt that the Russian Federation is the junior partner in its relationship with Beijing, not simply in the Korean context but in the Sino-Russian partnership overall.
The benefits Moscow gains from its alignment with China over Korean affairs are short-term at best, as coordination with China can help reduce Washington’s ability to project power on Russia’s eastern flank.
However, from a long-term, strategic standpoint, Beijing’s rising influence in Northeast Asia, while benefiting Russia’s current interests against the United States, will not serve the Kremlin’s vision for the Korean peninsula.
Moscow is well aware of its diminutive stature in North Korean affairs, especially in comparison to Chinese influence.
For Russia, the best-case scenario in its triangular relationship with China and the DPRK is that, in exchange for implicitly recognizing China’s superior position on the northern half of the Korean peninsula, Beijing will allow Russia to claim a greater degree of influence in the post-Soviet space.
Ultimately, however, Moscow’s interests would be best served through the creation of a multipolar sub-regional order in Northeast Asia, of which Russia would ideally enjoy a role as a key stakeholder.
Russia’s preferred vision of a Northeast Asian order under a multipolar rubric would include a unified and neutral Korea, which would allow the Russian Federation to lessen its cooperation with the PRC on Korean affairs.
Sino-Russian cohesion over North Korean security issues, itself part of a wider-ranging strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, will no doubt cause consternation for the U.S. and its allies in Northeast Asia.
Given Beijing’s influential status in North Korean affairs, one of the central questions at the heart of Beijing and Moscow’s entente over North Korea is to what extent China and Russia’s alignment will affect Moscow’s own standing in Korean affairs.
Coordination with China could eventually help the Kremlin to gain a stronger, more independent standing in Korea, to the point where Moscow can stand as a more powerful stakeholder in its own right.
The end result of this would thus be a somewhat more complex Northeast Asian geopolitical and strategic environment by virtue of Moscow’s ability to throw its weight more independently than it can now.
Such a reality would no doubt cause complications for Beijing as well as Washington.
On the other hand, the Russian Federation could also simply end up remaining subordinate to Beijing in the long term, never having a chance to stake out a significant role for itself independent of the PRC.
In this case, the Russian Federation would at best be an appendage to China’s expanding influence in Northeast Asia.
This would complicate Washington’s ability to pursue its interests on the Korean peninsula, yet would also be a highly imperfect scenario for the Kremlin as well.
Ultimately the Sino-Russian accord over the DPRK is based on a common foe. Thinly veiled behind a common aversion to the United States’ influence in Korea, however, are geopolitical realities that should be kept in mind as Beijing and Moscow push forward with their outward cooperation over North Korean affairs.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin
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