Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Sharyl Cross – director of the Kozmetsky Center at St. Edward’s University and co-author of the recent book China, Russia, and Twenty First Century Global Geopolitics – is the 163rd in “The Trans-Pacific Insight Series.”
Explain China and Russia’s support for lifting sanctions on North Korea.
China and Russia share an interest in limiting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and avoiding a military confrontation or collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. However, both Beijing and Moscow consider the U.S. condition of full denuclearization of the DPRK unrealistic as a requirement for relaxing sanctions.
Both countries were pleased to see the de-escalation of tensions from threats of “fire and fury” and repeated missile launches following the unprecedented summit of U.S. President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018 in Singapore. Beijing and Moscow could support a Trump administration brokered agreement to halt North Korea’s nuclear missile launches with reciprocal suspensions in routine U.S.-South Korean military drills.
However, China and Russia working in unison called for the UN Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea in September 2018 as a means of rewarding initial steps toward disarmament. This position advanced by China and Russia directly contradicts the Trump administration and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisting that sanctions must remain firmly in place until denuclearization of the DPRK has been achieved and verified. As the threat of a U.S.-North Korean military clash recedes, there is less urgency and resolve in strict enforcement of sanctions, which was never the preferred method in dealing with North Korea for either Beijing or Moscow.
What is the strategic calculus behind China and Russia’s resistance to the U.S. proposal to maintain strict sanctions?
While both nations would place a high priority on avoiding escalation of a military conflict over North Korea, China and Russia have demonstrated a willingness to challenge U.S. positions on regional conflict flashpoints. Beijing was the target of additional tariffs imposed by the Trump administration in fall 2018, and Moscow suffered another round of more stringent Western economic sanctions in August 2018 originally imposed by the United States and its allies following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, perhaps making it even more difficult for Washington to enlist continued China-Russia support for maintaining a punitive sanctions regime on Pyongyang. Both China and Russia find common ground in supporting a multipolar world order to counter perceived U.S. unilateralism and would want to avoid sending the message at home or abroad that they were yielding leadership on North Korea to the United States.
The most recent round of trilateral talks held among officials of China, Russia, and North Korea reinforces the message that not all decisions will be made in Washington. On October 9, 2018, following the latest visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea, deputy foreign ministers of Russia, China, and North Korea — Igor Morgulov of Russia, Kong Xuanyou of China, and Choe Son Hui of North Korea— gathered for the first time in Moscow to discuss easing sanctions on North Korea. Summarizing the meetings, Morgulov, stated in a TASS interview that “measures” should reflect “reciprocity, and parallel, synchronous and gradual steps” and emphasized that the situation on the Korean Peninsula would be settled in “accordance with the Russian-Chinese roadmap.”
Both China and Russia are pursuing policies toward North Korea reflecting respective national interests. China, North Korea’s largest economic patron, shares ideological commitments with the DPRK but would also like to see the country implement economic reforms based on the successful Chinese model. Moscow recognizes that North Korea could be a factor in realizing regional economic project plans and long-term development of Russia’s Far East. Neither China or Russia want to drive North Korea to a point of threatening regime stability due to the imposition of excessively harsh economic measures that could bring waves of refugees across shared borders or a re-unification of a pro-U.S. Korea, significantly shifting the power balance in North East Asia.
Explain why Moscow is reinforcing Beijing’s calls to ease sanctions.
Russia and China have a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and North Korea constitutes only one among several other important issue areas on the Moscow-Beijing bilateral agenda. While the two countries no longer have common ideological allegiances, both share authoritarian political systems holding the preservation of state security and sovereignty as highest priorities. Both seek to challenge values associated with the liberal world order, leading to a coincidence of Sino-Russian positions on significant global issues such as cybersecurity, defining sources of terrorism and violent extremism, and waging unified opposition to U.S. or Western efforts to promote democratization and regime change. Moscow’s support for Beijing’s calls to ease sanctions on Pyongyang only reinforces the importance of the burgeoning partnership among these two major authoritarian powers.
While China and Russia do not yet have a full-scale declared alliance and would want to avoid being drawn into costly conflicts of the other nation, Western analysts and policy officials can tend to underestimate the shared affinity, common interests, and importance of this rapidly evolving bilateral partnership. In September 2018, Russia held the largest military exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vostok 2018. This display of Russia’s military capability featured the first-ever participation of Chinese troops in war game exercises in Russia’s Far East. Simultaneously with Vostok 2018, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin held joint sessions at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok emphasizing their shared interest in opposing “unilateral approaches to international problems” and the importance of China-Russia bilateral cooperation in a “rapidly changing international situation with growing instability and unpredictability.” Both Beijing and Moscow are sending a clear message to the United States that they have options or could together pose a significant counterbalance to American interests.
Russia shares a border with North Korea and has longstanding historical ties and economic and security interests in the Korean Peninsula. Beijing has been critical to sustaining the regime in Pyongyang providing the bulk of external economic and diplomatic support to the regime. The Kremlin recognizes that China’s interests with respect to North Korea are more significant and some Russian analysts have suggested that there may be an understanding that Russia will back Beijing on North Korea in exchange for China’s support or at least acquiescence in areas of greater priority for Moscow — in Syria and perhaps Ukraine.
Why should U.S. policymakers be concerned about Russia leveraging its influence in U.S.-North Korea relations?
Moscow seeks to be respected as a great power exerting consequential influence not only in regional issues, but on major issues of global security. It would be a mistake to underestimate Russia’s capacity for influencing developments with respect to North Korea. Russia has been active on a diplomatic level in dealing with North Korea and Putin has offered to host a visit with Kim Jong Un. Russia’s accelerated pivot toward China and Asia has been accompanied by Moscow’s deepening engagement as an Asian power and issuing appeals toward other Asian nations to develop a new security architecture based on regional values. Moscow is certainly capable of being a “spoiler” for U.S. policy initiatives toward North Korea. There have been repeated accusations over the past several months of failure on the part of Russia to ensure strict enforcement of UNSC sanctions.
At the same time, the United States and Russia also share a few critical interests with respect to North Korea that still allow some possibility for cooperation. Moscow does not want to see its nuclear strategic advantage jeopardized and therefore can be expected to continue to support denuclearization of North Korea, though like China on gradual and reciprocal terms. Further, Moscow’s security and economic interests could be threatened in the event of the outbreak of full-scale war in Asia triggered over North Korea. The fact that the Trump administration has ruled out seeking regime change in Pyongyang could be important in sustaining progress with Moscow and Beijing on North Korea, though such concerns would still exist regarding the intentions of future U.S. administrations.
What recommendations could be offered in forming U.S. policy for managing relationships with China and Russia toward long-term resolution of the North Korea challenge?
The recent call on the part of Moscow and Beijing to relax sanctions on North Korea may signal that the initial international consensus on coordinating the multilateral response is breaking down. A unilateral approach in dealing with North Korea without the support of Russia and especially China holds little prospect for success. U.S. policymakers must appreciate the impact of other security and economic issues that might influence the willingness of China and Russia to continue to support U.S. initiatives on North Korea. Also, the leadership in North Korea could be quite skilled in exploiting the differences among major regional powers.
U.S. policymakers should consider North Korea in the context of the U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia bilateral agendas and carefully weigh whether any action might have the unintended geopolitical consequence of pushing Russia and China closer. The Sino-Russian strategic partnership has advanced to a point that we can’t expect to drive a wedge between these two powers, but rather should continue to seek ways to enlist their support in achieving critical objectives that all three nations desire, including making progress toward denuclearization of North Korea and reducing the risk of military clashes. It should be obvious that both Beijing and Moscow will resist measures that could lead to augmenting U.S. influence in Northeast Asia. It is difficult to envision maintaining mutually supportive U.S.-China-Russia approaches in dealing with North Korea in face of a looming trade war with China and the high state of tension between the United States and Russia over economic sanctions, escalating military posturing between Russia and NATO or the collapse of the INF Treaty and threat of resuming the nuclear arms race. At the same time, relationships with the United States remain important to China and Russia and Washington’s success at leveraging vast influence and resources to work productively with both countries will be vital for American interests.
Finally, expectations should be limited. While President Donald Trump surely deserves credit for engaging the North Korean leader to roll back the threat of a possible nuclear confrontation, hailing the June 12 Singapore Summit as a major victory eliminating the North Korean nuclear threat was premature. Making progress in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat will undoubtedly involve periodic setbacks and require patient sustained diplomatic engagement coordinated among multiple regional players each possessing the capacity to influence outcomes.