China Remains Silent as Russia and North Korea Strengthen Defense Ties, Raising Concerns Over Regional Power Shift

China is maintaining a cautious distance as Russia and North Korea strengthen their alliance through a new defense pact, a move that could shift the power dynamic between the three authoritarian states.

Experts believe China is concerned about losing influence over North Korea after its leader, Kim Jong Un, and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the agreement this week. They worry this could lead to increased instability on the Korean Peninsula. However, Beijing is facing a dilemma: maintaining peace in the Koreas while simultaneously challenging the US and its allies on the global stage.

Beijing has refrained from commenting on the pact, which commits both countries to providing defense assistance if one is attacked. Instead, it has repeated its standard statements emphasizing its commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and advocating for a political resolution to the North-South divide.

China’s response has been described as “very weak” by Victor Cha, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He suggests that Beijing is struggling to determine its course of action.

“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.”

While some in Beijing may view the Russia-North Korea partnership as a counterbalance to American dominance, Cha acknowledges that there is also “a great deal of discomfort” within China. They are concerned about losing influence over their neighbor to Russia, the potential destabilization posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, and the risk of escalating European conflict in Asia.

China is not publicly voicing these concerns. “They don’t want to push Kim Jong Un further into the arms of Vladimir Putin,” Cha said.

Lin Jian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on the 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 its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, expressed concern about the pact, stating it “should be of concern to any country that believes that the U.N. Security Council resolutions ought to be abided by.” The Security Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea to hinder its nuclear weapons development.

Kirby also added that 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.”

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, suggests that China may be concerned about Russia potentially sharing advanced technology to support North Korea’s weapons program.

“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 is the latest chapter in a complex history of political and military relationships in East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party, once an underdog, has risen to a position of influence over both North Korea and Russia.

This development, along with others, has raised concerns in the US that Beijing, now the world’s second-largest economy, could challenge the US-led global order by aligning itself with countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Beijing has denied these accusations.

Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, maintains that Beijing has no intention of forming a three-way alliance with North Korea and Russia, as it “needs to keep its options open.”

Such a coalition could trigger a new Cold War, a scenario Beijing actively seeks to avoid. Locking itself to Pyongyang and Moscow would also be counterproductive to China’s goals of maintaining ties with Europe and improving relations with Japan and South Korea.

Sun believes 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.”

Danny Russel, a former senior US diplomat for Asia during the Obama administration, believes that the closer ties between Putin and Kim could diminish Beijing’s influence and leave China as the “biggest loser.”

“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, believes 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.”