China’s Ambivalence on the North Korea-Russia Security Alignment

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China’s Ambivalence on the North Korea-Russia Security Alignment

There are both pros and cons for Beijing as Russia and North Korea expand their arms trade and strategic cooperation.

China’s Ambivalence on the North Korea-Russia Security Alignment

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Sep. 13, 2023.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Since September, Russia and North Korea have negotiated and executed a series of arms deals. The summit between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin that was held that month at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East, right after the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to the Pyongyang military parade in July, quickly took North Korea-Russia security relations to the next level. Kim’s entourage, which included senior military cadres from the planning, operations, and production defense industrial sectors, demonstrated that the deal would be comprehensive for North Korea and Russia. Meanwhile, Putin’s level of hospitality, which included showing Kim high-tech weapons production facilities, reconfirmed how seriously Russia is approaching the deals.

Russia’s benefits are more short term, with the acquisition of millions of rounds of North Korean ammunition such as 152 mm artillery ammunition, 122 mm multiple rocket launchers, and other conventional weapons, which can be immediately used on the battlefield in Ukraine. North Korea wants Russia’s technical assistance for research and development of space and advanced weapons technologies like nuclear-powered submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles, and reconnaissance satellites. Pyongyang is also seeking supplies of food and energy along with international support for its pariah regime. This set of give-and-take clearly shows what each side needs.

According to White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, North Korea has already transferred approximately 1,000 containers of weapons to Russia.   

This sudden military cooperation, which will likely develop into a security alignment, has surprised many security experts and decision-makers. North Korea-Russia security relations have been stagnant, at best, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the quiet abolition of their military alliance. Russia has maintained a balance between the two Koreas, even though its relations with South Korea are more important than ties with North Korea, especially in terms of economic and social aspects. Moreover, Russia’s military presence in Northeast Asia (or the Indo-Pacific more broadly) has been significantly reduced, while Moscow has been busy dealing with NATO expansion in the Euro-Atlantic region. North Korea has had difficulty convincing Russia to support its nuclearization and conventional military adventures over the past two decades. 

Nevertheless, the war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine has changed this stagnant bilateral security relationship. Russia’s shortage of conventional weapons and ammunition triggered the deal with Pyongyang. Over the last seven decades, North Korea has built up ample stockpiles of artillery ammunition and other conventional weapons for use in a hostile military confrontation with South Korea. No other country, even China, seems capable of providing Russia with much-needed ammunition. However, North Korea, already an international outcast under heavy sanctions, needs assistance from Russia badly enough to do a deal. 

South Korea, the United States, and its aligned security partners in both the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions have heavily criticized this illegal arms deal, which is prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions. They have pledged to impose more sanctions, which are expected to be largely ineffective under the given global political landscape. Such a negative reaction is natural and comprehensible because a North Korea-Russia security partnership would rattle the established security structure in Europe and Northeast Asia. It would prolong the current war in former and aggravate the security dilemma in latter, leading to security convergence between the two volatile regions.

Nevertheless, another key stakeholder, China, which is regarded as a senior military partner, if not an ally, of both Russia and North Korea, has been silent on this remarkable change in the security milieu so far. Its official response – that any military cooperation between its two friendly neighbors would be “between the two countries” – implies that it is not China’s business. What lies behind China’s near-silence on this major development in its own backyard?

China’s Quiet and Ambivalent Response

It is likely that China is ambivalent toward this military deal, likely because there are both pros and cons for Beijing. 

First, as many experts have argued, China could benefit from this arms deal; its inaction would kill two birds with one stone. China has carefully avoided providing any military weapons to Russia, but it also doesn’t want Russia – a critical partner in its policy of confronting the United States and its allies – to lose the war. If North Korea provides Russia with much-needed artillery ammunition and other conventional weapons, China can avoid further hostility from the European countries that are against any support for Russia, and Russia can continue to fight its war with NATO-supported Ukraine. 

Furthermore, a North Korea that is militarily more advanced due to its access to Russian technologies would serve as leverage against the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan, which have strengthened their trilateral security alignment against China and North Korea. China does not want to take on greater responsibility for skirting the comprehensive sanctions against North Korea, especially for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions on the arms trade. Instead, Russia will take the blame for providing North Korea with sanctioned technology, while China will still enjoy more influence over the United States and its allies. China would be delighted to have its junior security partners contributing to a trilateral security alliance against their East Asian counterparts or, potentially, the U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance system per se. 

Even though this argument seems convincing, we should also consider the other side of the coin. China may not like the strengthening of military ties between its two neighbors. First, China wants to monopolize its influence over North Korea’s political, economic, and military fate, and does not want to share this with Russia or anyone else. China has been considered the only country capable of further punishing North Korea under the severe multilateral and bilateral sanctions regime of the past two decades. North Korea certainly wishes to diversify its international patronage and support beyond China, which would provide Pyongyang with more leverage over Beijing

Second, China does not want to take the leadership of a China-Russia-North Korea trilateral security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. Many seem to emphasize China’s strategic commitment to forming the aforementioned trilateral security alignment in Northeast Asia and beyond. China would value the security capabilities of these two authoritarian comrades against the United States more highly than ever in the 2020s, but it has certainly been reluctant to embrace such a grouping. 

China does know its pros and cons, and probably the latter weigh more heavily. China may not want to be branded and framed as the leader of an authoritarian club alongside North Korea and Russia. Beijing is already trying to avoid being labeled as Russia’s top military ally in the Euro-Atlantic region. As soon as this grouping becomes apparent and official, China will lose any hope of strengthening, if not recovering, its comprehensive relations with most of the developed countries of Asia and Europe.

As much as China attaches great importance to the Global South, it desperately needs the Global North for its own economic, technological, and diplomatic advancement. China needs more from the Western middle powers, if the United States is not a possibility. China ultimately wants to sway, at least partially, these European and East Asian countries from the United States. Officially joining a bloc alongside Russia and North Korea would end all hope on this line for China. 

In this context, a militarily advanced North Korea is a double-edged sword for China. It would force the China-labeled “Asian NATO” to continue their military build-up and eventually exacerbate the security dilemma in Northeast Asia and beyond, even though it might be helpful for China in case of major all-out war against the United States, potentially over Taiwan.

Third, China does not want to see security convergence between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions. It is a well-known fact that the Biden administration is trying hard to connect these two regions’ security scheme under the still-ambiguous concept of “integrated deterrence.” NATO’s general secretary has addressed such a regional convergence, emphasizing the threats from near and far, i.e., from both Russia and China. Along with many European leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol also support this cross-regional security alignment

China has made it very clear that NATO should not engage in the Indo-Pacific region, and especially in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. The Russia-North Korea arms deal, and ensuing military alignment, however, will accelerate the regional security convergence. Now North Korea is providing Russia with millions of conventional weapons and ammunition, which are immediately put into service in Ukraine and, as a result, undermine NATO’s ability to defend against Russia. Both the United States and NATO members in Europe see a real military threat across the Northeast Asian continent. 

NATO countries will feel more need to engage in the Indo-Pacific region to constrain North Korea, Russia, and China, too. The rapidly developing NATO-AP4 framework will gain more momentum in this regard. Increasing security interactions between the two regions in any way compromises China’s strategic interests.

China’s Conundrum

Will China really enjoy the positive externalities of the Russia-North Korea arms deal? Probably not. Chinese top leaders and their strategists are more likely busy calculating the pros and cons as discussed in this brief. Since this new security phenomenon has large implications, they must avoid seeing China’s interests harmed by the unconventional “marriage of convenience” of the two international authoritarian pariahs. The North Korea-Russia convergence could cause a series of critical chain reactions in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security theaters. Like many other countries, China is not sure about its consequences.