Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un are getting closer — and China has reason to be worried

  • Russia entered into a new security pact with the rogue state North Korea.

  • It's an alliance probably being viewed with caution in Beijing, analysts say.

  • China is eager to avoid a flare-up on the Korean peninsula, they say.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, recently signed a defense pact to protect against what they characterized as the malign forces of US imperialism.

But it's not just the US's allies in East Asia that appear alarmed by the new alliance between the authoritarian leaders.

Anxiety appears to be growing in a state that's emerged as both Russia and North Korea's most important international ally: China.

A muted response

China's response to the pact, which saw Putin and Kim pledge to defend each other's countries if attacked, was revealingly muted.

"The cooperation between Russia and the DPRK is a matter between two sovereign states. We do not have information on the relevant matter," a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said.

Analysts say the alliance is probably being viewed warily by China's leader, Xi Jinping, who fears his power will be eroded in the Korean peninsula.

"China likely regards deepening ties between Russia and North Korea with some wariness," Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Crisis Group, told Business Insider. "It worries about the possibility of Russia's providing military assistance that could advance North Korea's nuclear and missile programs."

Danny Russel, the top US diplomat for Asia in the Obama administration, told the Associated Press that China could emerge as the "biggest loser" from the security pact.

"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.

An important ally

China has long been North Korea's most important international ally, providing trade, diplomatic support, and military aid to Kim.

It's the only country in the world with which China has a joint defense pact.

But in recent years, the relationship has become strained. North Korea has defied attempts by the international community to compel it to dismantle the nuclear weapons it menaced its neighbors with.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has meanwhile destabilized relations between Beijing and Pyongyang further.

Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un waving to crowds with North Korean and Chinese flags.
Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang in June 2019.Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Russia is leaning on North Korea for supplies of badly needed artillery for its forces in Ukraine, and in exchange, Russia appears to have shared with North Korea the satellite technology Kim has long coveted.

It's a dynamic that's upset the delicate balance of power in the Korean peninsula.

An emboldened Kim Jong Un

Russia's extra military power could embolden Kim to act more erratically and aggressively. While China is willing to prop up North Korea, it's also keen to restrain Kim.

With China's economy experiencing a rare downturn, Xi is eager to avoid a flare-up in the Korean Peninsula, and the Kremlin's new partnership with North Korea has reduced China's leverage.

"The dilution of Chinese leverage means Kim Jong Un can disregard Beijing's calls for restraint," Russell told the AP, "and that is much more likely to create chaos at a time when Xi Jinping desperately wants stability."

But it's not just the impoverished North Korea that's reliant on its partnership with China. Russia has grown increasingly dependent on its own relationship with China since it invaded Ukraine.

Amid sanctions and international isolation, China has continued to provide Russia with vital diplomatic support and, the US says, dual-use goods for Russia's armaments industry.

Like Russia and North Korea, China wants to damage US global power, and though it's stopped short of providing Russia with weapons, its support remains crucial.

This means China has enough influence over both Russia and North Korea to exert control over their new alliance.

"China likely loomed large in Vladimir Putin's conversations with Kim Jong-un, as it is the most important economic and diplomatic partner for both Russia and North Korea," said Wyne. "Neither leader can afford to alienate Xi Jinping."

Yun Sun, the director of the China program at Washington's Stimson Center think tank, told CNN that Beijing appeared unable to control the pace of Russia's new alliance with North Korea.

She added, however, that "they do know that China plays an irreplaceable role for both Russia and North Korea."

China has considerable influence over both countries. It may have to use that influence sooner rather than later.

Read the original article on Business Insider