Kim, Putin bromance means headache for Xi

The Western media has been awash with reports of Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping proclaiming a “no limits” partnership with Russia and vowing “unswerving” support for communist pariah state North Korea.

High-level delegations from Russia and China recently convened with North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un at a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the 1953 Korean War cease-fire which saw China and the erstwhile Soviet Union backing the communist North against the U.S.-backed South Korea. 

Photographs depicted Kim, together with a Chinese Politburo member and Russia’s defense minister, beaming as North Korean missiles capable of targeting the U.S. were paraded through downtown Pyongyang.

Even more recently, a rare summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a space launch center in the Russian Far East on September 13 provoked concerns from Washington to Seoul to Tokyo regarding the prospects of a growing bromance between two leaders.

Although it remains uncertain as to the level of maneuvers that Chinese officials might have pertaining to Russian-North Korean talks, observers have contended that the recent Putin-Kim summit might not have proceeded without factoring China’s relations with both countries into the equation. 

“(Given) the importance of the support that China provides to both, China is of course looming in the background,” remarked Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“China is too important for both North Korea and Russia, so for them it would be foolish to do something behind China’s back that it wouldn’t like,” he added. “The China factor is there.”

Observers posited that Xi’s support for Pyongyang and Moscow underscores China’s continued alliance with both countries amid American efforts to boost military ties with allies South Korea and Japan.

In his congratulatory message to Kim on the occasion of North Korea’s founding, Xi said that he and Kim had met five times, maintained close communication “through various forms”, and raised their ties “into a new era”, based on reports from China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency.

Xi lauded the two countries as “friendly neighbors linked by the same mountain and river”, in addition to last year’s message that portrayed Kim as “a good comrade, good neighbor and good friend”.

Highlighting “accelerating changes unseen in a century” across the world, Xi asserted: 

“No matter how the international and regional situation changes, it has always been the unswerving position of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government to maintain, consolidate and develop the traditional friendly and cooperative relationship (with Pyongyang). 

“Under the new circumstances, China is willing to work with the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to strengthen strategic communication and deepen practical cooperation, push China-DPRK relations to advance with the times and achieve greater development, so as to better benefit the two peoples and make greater contributions to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity.”

Likewise, China characterized its ties with Russia as a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era”, signified by “cooperation on all issues, including international affairs, military and technological development”. Putin even invited Xi to Russia in March 2023 to “demonstrate to the whole world how strong the Russian-Chinese friendship is”.

Undeniably, warmer relations with Russia and North Korea are more crucial for China than ever before. With Western sanctions of billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese exports, a ban on advance chip export to China’s semiconductor industry, among many other restrictions, China, in order to go head-to-head with the U.S., has to use Russia and North Korea as leverage.

Understandably, drawing from Germany’s example where Washington coerced Berlin to distance itself from Russian resources, sold overpriced gas and then used protectionism through the Inflation Reduction Act to discourage German production, an ambitious China would not want to meet with the same fate as Germany and be dominated by the U.S. 

Reports have indicated that China is exporting micro-electronics, primarily semiconductors, to Russia. In 2022 alone, Russia’s defense industrial base obtained Chinese micro-electronics shipments worth over US$500 million.

What is more, given Russia’s international isolation as a result of Western-led sanctions triggered by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Chinese companies can leverage the reality that Russia has lost most of its Western customers (at least officially) when it comes to Russian energy exports. 

For instance, China spent US$81 billion on the imports of Russian oil, coal, liquified natural gas (LNG), and pipeline gas in 2022, more than the US$52.1 billion figure in 2021. In the first six months of 2023, Sino-Russian trade rose by 40.7 percent compared to the same period in 2022, exceeding the trade volume of the entire year of 2020. 

Arguably, North Korea’s provocative nuclear rhetoric and missile exercises mostly threatening the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have served as a complement to China’s increasing pugilism in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. 

To boot, a joint naval drill involving Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang, as previously suggested by Moscow, could be a step closer to the formal creation of an alliance against the U.S. and its allies. A potential trilateral military exercise could serve as an act of brinksmanship to protest increasing American military activities in the Indo-Pacific, such as the recent U.S.-South Korean joint Ulchi Freedom Shield military exercise from August 21 to 31. 

As China feels restricted by what it regards as an increasingly adversarial stance taken by the U.S. and its allies, it may be in favor of enhanced partnerships with both Russia and North Korea as counterweights, analysts have opined. 

On that note, a change in dynamics between Russia and North Korea which sees Moscow offering support to Pyongyang could boost China’s regional status.  

“China would support a more capable North Korea in many respects – economically, militarily – and a North Korea that continues to serve as a troublemaker for the U.S.,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“When you have a more assertive North Korea it will lead to some sort of incentive for the U.S. and South Korea to seek China’s cooperation in terms of dealing with North Korea,” Li continued. 

Having said that, there are limits to China’s “no-limits” friendship with Russia and its “unswerving” backing of North Korea. 

For one, Russia and China agree on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, after having backed UN sanctions against North Korea’s weapons projects. In turn, Pyongyang slammed Beijing for “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” 

“While North Korea is obviously a partner, due to the convergence of their strategic interests, I don’t think there is a convergence in terms of what they think North Korea should do,” commented Collin Koh, a senior fellow specializing in Indo-Pacific naval affairs at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, posited that China has an interest in preventing animosities between North and South Korea from spiraling into a full-fledged conflict, as such a scenario could lead to refugees entering its own borders, apart from a military response from the U.S. 

Also, Beijing has been painstakingly trying to position itself as an advocate of peace in the conflict in Ukraine to earn back forfeited goodwill among EU states, most of whom have criticized Beijing’s move to continue boosting ties with Moscow despite Russian actions in Ukraine. 

“On the Ukraine crisis, China will uphold an independent and impartial position, sound an objective and rational voice, actively promote peace talks, and strive to seek a political solution on any international multilateral occasion,” China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said, based on statements published by China’s Foreign Ministry. 

Likewise, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, stated that as “Beijing has a large stake in global trade, (it) can ill afford collateral damage from destabilizing pariah state behavior, such as the invasion of Ukraine and habitually threatening the use of nuclear weapons.” 

Conceivably, warmer relations between Pyongyang and Moscow could lead to both countries being less dependent on Beijing, therefore reducing China’s perceived influence in international talks over ending the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and functioning as a check on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“I doubt Xi is overjoyed to see the Kim-Putin love-fest unfolding across China’s border,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. Rather, Kim and Putin, Delury said, have incentives to obtain more leverage from China, the “dominant power in the triangle,” by boosting their bilateral ties.

Cozy Kim-Putin ties may encourage Moscow and Pyongyang to pursue more actions deemed hostile by the West as North Korea could plausibly supply arms to Moscow to perpetuate Russian actions in Ukraine while Moscow could provide technological expertise to Pyongyang to boost the latter’s nuclear program. 

Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, stated that any public display of entrenching an axis of three Western-opposing nations (Russia, North Korea and China) each with territorial ambitions, may only jeopardize Beijing’s interests, go against its own disregard for “bloc politics,” and increase the prospect that U.S. allies would urge for tougher sanctions on China.

Admittedly while an outward appearance of closer ties with Moscow and Pyongyang could give Beijing added stature in its geopolitical calculus, the task that lies ahead for the Chinese Communist Party would be how closely it wants to be perceived as collaborating with Moscow and Pyongyang in its quest for global leadership and contesting the U.S.-led world order.

Photo credit: iStock/ Gerasimov174

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more