Signs of stronger trilateral ties as China sends its top diplomats to Russia after Kim-Putin summit

Posted on : 2023-09-15 16:12 KST Modified on : 2023-09-15 16:12 KST
Beijing is unlikely to stand by while Pyongyang and Moscow draw closer without including it
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Following the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, China is stepping up its communications with Russia, such as deciding to send its top diplomat to Moscow.

The summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin, likely to take place in Beijing in mid-October, and subsequent trilateral communications between South Korea, the United States, and Japan will be an important inflection point for China, which has up till now retained a neutral stance.

Since the New York Times broke the news of a North Korea-Russia summit on Sept. 4, China has kept its distance and avoided commenting on the issue.

In fact, Mao Ning, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been repeating for days that the North Korean leader’s visit to Russia was “an arrangement between the two countries,” and that China has nothing to comment on.

China, which has positioned itself as a peace mediator in the war in Ukraine and has been criticizing US military support for the country, will likely find it difficult to publicly support a North Korea-Russia relationship centered on military cooperation.

In addition, China and the Soviet Union competed fiercely during the Cold War over who had more influence in North Korea, so, from China’s perspective, a Russia-North Korea alliance is bound to be uncomfortable.

Against this backdrop, Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Wednesday that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Moscow on Monday, the same day as the summit between the leaders of the two countries.

The two ministers are expected to discuss recent North Korea-Russia talks and coordinate October’s summit between Xi and Putin. China has distanced itself from providing arms to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, but has stepped up strategic cooperation with the country by holding a series of joint drills in the East Sea.

Significant talks with North Korea are also expected to take place as Beijing welcomes a North Korean delegation to the Hangzhou Asian Games on Sept. 23.

It seems unlikely that China will maintain its nonchalant attitude toward increasingly closening ties between North Korea and Russia at the upcoming meeting between Wang and Lavrov.

In his opening statement for his summit with Putin held at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Wednesday, Kim said he would make North Korea-Russia relations a “No. 1 priority” in foreign policy, developing them and treating them as a matter of top importance.

Beijing is unlikely to stand by while Pyongyang and Moscow draw closer without including it.

Some Russia security experts suggest that if an arms deal is sealed between North Korea and Russia, it would be with the consent of China. This interpretation places China “within” increasingly cozy ties between North Korea and Russia, not “without.”

Further, since the start of the Joe Biden administration in the US, strategic competition between Washington and Beijing has intensified, and following the emergence of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in South Korea, cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo has quickly expanded. On Aug. 18, the three countries significantly upgraded their trilateral cooperation at Camp David.

Amid this development, the US is attempting to arrange a summit with China to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit scheduled for November in San Francisco. South Korea is separately making efforts to arrange a South Korea-China-Japan summit.

During these meetings, China will likely convey its concerns regarding the military alliance that appears to be developing among South Korea, the US and Japan. This may happen further down the line if China determines its position on progressing ties between North Korea and Russia.

If China decides to strengthen its solidarity with North Korea and Russia, joint drills among the three countries may become a reality. China and Russia have previously conducted joint military exercises in the East Sea, but North Korea has never participated in them.

Yet a high level of skepticism remains regarding this possibility. Were the three to begin holding joint military drills, China would not only have to divvy up its influence on North Korea with Russia, but be prepared for its relations with Western nations, including the US, to sour.

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

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