China Cautiously Observes as Russia and North Korea Deepen Alliance, Avoids Trilateral Tensions

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lin Jian described the summit as a bilateral exchange between Russia and North Korea but did not elaborate further.

This week, China responded cautiously as Russia and North Korea strengthened their alliance and vowed to resist the U.S.-led West, avoiding any trilateral arrangement that might strain Beijing’s relations with other countries.

On Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shared his “in-most thoughts” with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang, while China observed from the sidelines.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lin Jian described the summit as a bilateral exchange between Russia and North Korea but did not elaborate further.

“China has certain reservations regarding North Korea’s deepening military cooperation with Russia, which could undermine Beijing’s near monopoly of geopolitical influence over Pyongyang,” said Tong Zhao of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Zhao also noted, “China is also careful not to create the perception of a de facto alliance among Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang, as this will not be helpful for China to maintain practical cooperation with key Western countries.”

Following the easing of North Korea’s anti-pandemic border controls last year, trade with China has rebounded, but Kim’s political engagement has been dominated by Russia.

Kim made his first post-pandemic trip to Russia to meet Putin last year, and Putin is the first world leader to visit the isolated North since borders reopened.

Russia’s use of North Korean-made ballistic missiles in Ukraine, which are banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions, has raised concerns.

Despite a proclaimed “no limits” relationship with Russia, China has avoided providing weapons and ammunition for the war effort.

China has blocked new sanctions on North Korea at the Security Council but abstained when Russia vetoed the extension of a panel monitoring sanctions enforcement.

A South Korean government official mentioned tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang over thousands of North Korean workers in China in violation of U.N. resolutions.

China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner, and the two share a mutual defense treaty dating back to the 1960s.

However, Kim’s engagement with Putin introduces new uncertainties for China.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, stated, “Until there is a clear development and policy that challenges China’s position, I’d say China is willing to sit aside and see how things go.”

For China, closer ties between Russia and North Korea distract the United States, which is not necessarily negative for Beijing, according to Sun.

However, she cautioned that China should avoid posing this as a trilateral arrangement, which carries too much liability.

Despite increasing clashes with Washington, China is not as isolated internationally as Russia and North Korea. The United States, Japan, and South Korea remain top trade partners for Beijing.

North Korea publicly rebuked China after Chinese Premier Li Qiang discussed the North’s nuclear weapons with South Korea and Japan in May.

Putin’s visit to North Korea coincided with a visit by senior Chinese officials to Seoul, raising concerns about regional stability.

China would likely become concerned if North Korea’s partnership with Russia leads to provocative behavior, said Niklas Swanstrom, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden.

“China wants to do trade, rebuild its economy; they have other more important concerns,” he said.