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The Russia-North Korea deal could reduce China's influence, but Beijing still retains influence over both.

The Russia-North Korea deal could reduce China's influence, but Beijing still retains influence over both.
The Russia-North Korea deal could reduce China's influence, but Beijing still retains influence over both.

 


BEIJING (AP) Without obvious options, China appears to be keeping its distance as Russia and North Korea move closer with a new defense pact that could tip the balance of power between the three authoritarian states.

Experts say Chinese leaders are likely worried about potentially losing influence over North Korea after their leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the deal this week, and how this could increase instability on the Korean Peninsula. But Beijing may also struggle to find a response because of its conflicting goals: maintaining peace in Korea while thwarting the United States and its Western allies on the world stage.

Beijing has so far not commented on the agreement that requires the two countries to provide defense assistance if the other is attacked and has only reiterated boilerplate statements that it seeks to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and to promote a political settlement of the North-South divide. .

The Chinese response has been very weak,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that this could be a sign that Beijing does not yet know what to do.

Every option is a bad option, he said. Either you are unable to make a decision due to very opposing viewpoints, or… you are simply unable to make a decision because you simply don't know how to assess the situation.

Some in Beijing might welcome the Russia-North Korea partnership as a way to oppose U.S. dominance in world affairs, but Cha said there is also a lot of discomfort in China, which does not want to lose its influence over its neighbor. Russia does not want to see a destabilizing nuclear power on its doorstep and does not want to bring the conflict in Europe to Asia.

But China is not publicly expressing these concerns. They do not want to push Kim Jong Un further into the arms of Vladimir Putin, Cha said, referring to the leaders of the two countries.

Lin Jian, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on the new deal. Cooperation between Russia and the DPRK is a matter between two sovereign states. We have no information on this issue, he said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

John Kirby, White House national security spokesman, told reporters that the Russia-North Korea deal “should be of concern to any country that believes U.N. Security Council resolutions should be respected. The Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea in an attempt to stop its development of nuclear weapons.

Kirby also said the deal “should worry anyone who thinks supporting the Ukrainian people is an important thing to do.” And we might think that this concern would be shared by the People's Republic of China.

One area that could worry China is whether Russia will help North Korea's weapons program by sharing advanced technologies, said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

If China is indeed concerned, it has leverage in both Russia and North Korea and could likely try to limit those relationships, he said.

The meeting between Putin and Kim this week marks the latest chapter in decades of complex political and military relations in East Asia, where the Chinese Communist Party, once an outsider, has become a leading power with influence over both North Korea and Russia.

This and other developments have sparked concern in the United States that Beijing, now the world's second-largest economy, could challenge the U.S.-led global order by aligning itself with countries such as Russia, North Korea and Iran. Beijing has rejected this allegation.

Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said Beijing does not want to form a three-way alliance with North Korea and Russia because it needs to keep its options open.

Such a coalition could mean a new Cold War, which Beijing says it is determined to avoid, and locking itself into Pyongyang and Moscow would run counter to China's goals of maintaining relations with Europe and improving ties with the Japan and South Korea, she said.

Sun added that the rapprochement between North Korea and Moscow opens up possibilities and potentials for uncertainty, but based on what has happened so far, I don't think China's national interests have been compromised.

Closer ties between Putin and Kim could weaken Beijing's influence and make it the biggest loser, said Danny Russell, who was the top U.S. diplomat for Asia in the Obama administration.

Aside from the irritation over Putin's intrusion into what most Chinese view as their sphere of influence, the real cost to China is that Russia's membership gives North Korea greater impunity and greater room to maneuver without considering Beijing's interests, he said.

Russell, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Kim was eager to reduce his country's dependence on China.

The dilution of Chinese influence means Kim Jong Un can ignore Beijing's calls for restraint,” he said, “and that is far more likely to create chaos at a time when (the Chinese leader) Xi Jinping desperately craves stability.

___

Tang reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Matthew Lee contributed from Washington.

Sources

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