North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this week has sparked an alignment between Russia and China that could complicate U.S. efforts to curtail Pyongyang, former diplomats and Asia policy experts say.
In a coordinated response to the launch, Beijing and Moscow issued a joint statement on Tuesday calling for a mutual freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in the region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Russian media that relations between the two countries were currently in their “best time in history” and that China and Russia were one another’s “most trustworthy strategic partners.”
The proposal, and the strategic alignment between the two one-time rivals, raised some eyebrows amongst regional watchers. Russia has often backed China in U.N. Security Council negotiations, but during the Obama administration it was far less engaged on North Korea than China was. Xi's government, meanwhile, had appeared prepared to begin taking a more assertive stance on the reclusive nation.
The recalibration serves a common goal that regional experts say is central to both Russian and Chinese foreign policy — loosening American alliances around the globe.
Former diplomats are split over the significance of the sudden chumminess. Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, called it “unsettling” but “not catastrophic in any way.” He characterized the surprise sync as two nations seizing an opportunity to undercut the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance — not a herald of a new era of coordinated policy against the United States.
But some regional policy experts fear that a united Sino-Russian front on North Korea could make it more difficult for the U.S. to rein in Pyongyang’s burgeoning nuclear program.
“The fact that Moscow and Beijing are using virtually identical language and are very united at this time I think will provide great comfort to Kim Jong Un,” said David Pressman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for political affairs who now works at the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm.
Regional experts across the board argue that China is a critical partner in applying the kind of pressure needed to rein in the rogue and increasingly dangerous state. If China, backed by Russia, decides to ease restrictions on North Korea, it could complicate efforts by the Trump administration to impose costs on the country for its nuclear program.
Without unity among the five major countries involved in dealing with North Korea — the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan — “North Korea is simply going to keep going,” said Danny Russel, who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council under former President Obama.
“We know from experience that North Korea has successfully operated in the gaps between the U.S. and China/Russia,” Russel said.
But while Russel said there might be a “tightening of coordination” between Moscow and Beijing, he sees little to suggest “a new threshold of collaboration between socialist brothers.”
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is more concerned by Tuesday’s coordinated message.
“I think we need to be aware of the possibility that China and Russia could take a step back from containing the regime and move towards increased diplomatic recognition, which could someday lead to their recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state,” Mount said.
“That would be in keeping with Russia's modus operandi, which is to support rogue regimes that complicate American influence throughout the world.”
Moscow and Beijing have a complicated history — the USSR and communist China skirted nuclear conflict over an undeclared border war in 1969 — and suspicions between the two nations have lingered since.
But a boosted economic relationship, concentrated in the energy and infrastructure sectors, drew the two nations closer together. Now, they are often aligned on issues of American involvement abroad. Both resent the U.S.'s actions in Syria and share an intense suspicion that the U.S. is attempting to foment color revolutions overseas to eliminate unwanted political leaders.
Both are strongly opposed to a controversial U.S. missile defense system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, that was deployed in South Korea this year.
Beijing worries the system’s powerful radars could be trained on China, though the United States insists THAAD is purely defensive and solely to address the threat of North Korea.
Russia has expressed similar concerns over the system, and in their joint statement Tuesday, the two countries expressed “strong opposition against the unilateral installation of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia-Pacific by some specific countries at the expense of others’ security interests.”
The system has faced recent pushback within South Korea under newly elected President Moon Jae-in, and Mount suggests that Russia is using friction over THAAD as a wedge to divide the U.S.-Seoul alliance.
“Their main concern will be to raise the cost of doing business in the eastern Pacific and diminish American influence there,” he said.
Geography and trade also play a role: Both China and Russia share a land border with North Korea, which acts as a buffer between their countries and western-aligned South Korea. And while the U.S. wants to cut off North Korea financially from the rest of the world, Russia and especially China maintain an economic relationship with the North.
Russel and others advise one other note of caution when interpreting the joint nature of the statement. At the time of the missile launch, Xi was in Moscow, meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
“It’s virtually a given that there would be a joint statement, in that the test was conducted at the very moment that those two leaders were meeting each other in Moscow,” Russel said.
“It’s more a function of the serendipity that they were there together than it is indicative of some new stage in Sino-Russian cooperation.”