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Analysis: China remains cautious as Putin and Kim forge new ‘alliance’

As Russian President Vladimir Putin glided through the crowded streets of Pyongyang atop a luxury Mercedes-Benz alongside his North Korean host Kim Jong-un last week, the two autocrats’ most important partner watched from the sidelines. from abroad, hundreds of kilometers away, in Beijing.

Five years ago, Xi Jinping was offered the same open-top ride as Kim when he became the first Chinese leader to visit Pyongyang in 14 years. At the time, the two leaders promised to strengthen ties and deepen cooperation, but the language is timid compared to the new “innovative” partnership established by Kim and Putin.

In a broad treaty covering political, trade, investment and security cooperation, North Korea and Russia have committed to using all available means to provide immediate military assistance if the other is attacked.

Putin said Russia and North Korea had taken ties to a “new level.” Meanwhile, Kim called the new “alliance” a “watershed moment” in bilateral relations.

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

In contrast, the reaction of China, the main political and economic patron of both Russia and North Korea, has been largely muted.

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

Despite official reticence, however, China is likely watching cautiously, analysts say.

China ‘intends to control the situation’

Deepening ties between two fractious autocrats risks creating new uncertainty for Xi, who needs peace and stability in Northeast Asia while facing a host of domestic challenges, especially the slowing economy.

Beijing fears that Moscow’s assistance to Pyongyang – especially in military technology – could further enable and embolden Kim’s erratic regime, which has dramatically accelerated the development 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 issue of North Korea, China wants to control the situation and avoid escalation, but it also does not want North Korea to completely collapse” – a scenario that Beijing fears will allow the US to extend its control to its borders, Liu said.

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

Russia has received more than 260,000 tons of munitions or munitions-related material from North Korea since September, according to a US statement in February. Both Russia and North Korea rejected the allegation.

And while the U.S. has accused China of supplying Russia with dual-use goods that bolster the embattled nation’s military-industrial complex, Beijing has refrained from offering direct military assistance to Putin and has avoided supporting Kim’s nuclear and missile programs.

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

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

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

The Sino-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance is the only formal military alliance treaty that China has signed with another country, although Beijing does not admit it as such and remains deliberately vague about whether China is obliged to provide support. to the North if a war breaks out.

Likewise, it remains unclear what Russia and North Korea are willing – and able – to do for each other under the new defense pact.

The new treaty comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where Kim has intensified inflammatory rhetoric and discarded a long-standing policy of seeking peaceful reunification with South Korea. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, a treaty of Formal peace was never signed between the two Koreas, technically leaving them in a state of war.

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

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

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

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

As Moscow and Pyongyang deepen their alliance, Beijing will be cautious to keep its distance, Liu said, adding that “China certainly does not want to be seen as part of a new Axis.”

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

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

“Russia will know very well that China does not want to be left out of any substantive negotiations involving North Korea, not least because China is much more important – compared to Russia – for North Korea.”

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

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

China remains Russia and North Korea’s largest trading partner, supporting their heavily sanctioned economies. Beijing also provides significant political support and diplomatic cover to the two international pariahs.

“China does not think that an alliance between Russia and North Korea would be a betrayal,” said Liu of the City University of Hong Kong. “Neither country has the capacity to betray China. They still need to trust China despite their alliance.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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