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Putin in North Korea: Russia-North Korea pact could dent China’s influence, but Beijing still holds sway over both

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China appears to be keeping its distance as Russia and North Korea move closer to each other with a new defense pact that could tilt the balance of power among the three authoritarian states. Experts say China’s leaders are likely fretting over potential loss of influence over North Korea after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the deal this week, and how that could increase instability on the Korean Peninsula.

But Beijing may be struggling to come up with a response to because of its conflicting goals: keeping peace in the Koreas while countering the US and its Western allies on the global stage.

Beijing so far has not commented on the deal – which requires both countries to provide defense assistance if the other is attacked – and only reiterated boilerplate statements that it seeks to uphold peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and advance 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 chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that it could be a sign that Beijing doesn’t yet know what to do.”Every option is a bad option,” he said.

“You’re either unable to make a decision because of very strongly held competing views or … you’re just incapable of making a decision because you just don’t know how to evaluate the situation.”

Some in Beijing may welcome the Russia-North Korea partnership as a way of pushing back at America’s dominance in world affairs, but Cha said that “there is also a great deal of discomfort” in China, which doesn’t want to lose its sway over its neighbour to Russia, doesn’t want to see a destabilizing nuclear power on its doorstep, and doesn’t want to bring the conflict in Europe to Asia.

But China isn’t raising these concerns publicly. “They don’t 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 the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on the new agreement. “The cooperation between Russia and the DPRK is a matter between two sovereign states. We do not have information on the relevant matter,” he said, referring to North Korea by the initials for its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, told reporters that the pact between Russia and North Korea “should be of concern to any country that believes that the UN Security Council resolutions ought to be abided by.”

The Security Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea to try to stop its development of nuclear weapons.

Kirby also said the agreement “should be of concern to anybody who thinks that supporting the people of Ukraine is an important thing to do. And we would think that that concern would be shared by the People’s Republic of China.”

One area that China could be concerned about is whether Russia will help North Korea’s weapons program by sharing advanced technology, 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 it could probably try to put some limitations to that relationship,” he said.

The meeting between Putin and Kim this week was the latest chapter in decades of complicated political and military relationships in East Asia, where the Chinese Communist Party, once an underdog, has emerged as a leading power that wields influence over both North Korea and Russia.

That and other developments have raised alarms in the US that Beijing, now the world’s second-largest economy, could challenge the US-led world order by aligning itself with countries such as Russia, North Korea and Iran. Beijing has rejected that allegation.

Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said Beijing doesn’t 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, something Beijing says it is determined to avoid, and locking itself to Pyongyang and Moscow would be contrary to China’s goals of maintaining relationships with Europe and improving ties with Japan and South Korea, she said.

Sun added that the rapprochement between North Korea and Moscow “opens up possibilities and potentials of uncertainty, but based on what has happened so far, I don’t think that China’s national interests have been undercut by this.”

Closer ties between Putin and Kim could weaken Beijing’s sway and leave it as the “biggest loser,” said Danny Russel, who was the top US diplomat for Asia in the Obama administration.

“Apart from irritation over Putin’s intrusion into what most Chinese consider their sphere of influence, the real cost to China is that Russia’s embrace gives North Korea greater impunity and room to maneuver without consideration to Beijing’s interests,” he said.

Russel, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that Kim is eager to reduce his country’s dependence on China.

“The dilution of Chinese leverage means Kim Jong Un can disregard Beijing’s calls for restraint,” he said, “and that is much more likely to create chaos at a time when (Chinese leader) Xi Jinping desperately wants stability.”

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