China and Russia are launching naval drills near North Korea as tensions on the Korean peninsula reach their highest peak in decades. China and Russia — often referred to by analysts as “key” powers in resolving the North Korea crisis — launched their naval exercises not far from the nation’s waters.
Neither Moscow nor Beijing links the Russia-China drills to the escalating tensions surrounding Pyongyang’s ever-expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. However, the naval exercises come amid World War 3 fears caused by the North’s provocative tests and missile launches.
This past Friday, Pyongyang launched another missile over Japan, its second in less than a month. The country also conducted its most powerful nuclear test yet earlier this month despite mounting international pressure.
China and Russia voted in favor of the new U.S.-backed sanctions resolution against the North twice in recent weeks despite their reluctance to side with the U.S. on the North Korea issue in the past. The naval drills started the same day as the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting.
Russia-China drills: A threat to North Korea or the U.S.?
The Russia-China drills are being held in Peter the Great Bay, just outside of Russia’s far eastern port of Vladivostok. The bay is in extremely close proximity to North Korea, especially its border with Russia.
The naval exercises come as the second part of Russia-China drills in July. The first installment of the grand exercises between the two allied nations took place in the Baltic. Moscow and Beijing stopped short of linking the drills to the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean issue, even when Pyongyang and Washington engaged in a heated war of words in August. At the time, the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un and U.S. President Donald Trump fired off a series of threats at each other, which prompted the rogue state to threaten to strike Guam, the Pacific Ocean island where America has a key Air Force base.
Uppsala University Professor Ashok Swain told ValueWalk on Monday that the Russia-China drills send “a strong message to the U.S.” Mr. Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at the Swedish university, added that the naval exercises are “a message to the West that the U.S. and its allies do not have, nor will get a free hand to deal with North Korea.”
When asked about how big of a role Moscow and Beijing play on the Korean Peninsula, the professor said, “China and Russia hold the key to keep North Korea in check,” Prof. Swain said. “Without their consent, it will be suicidal for the US to intervene in North Korea.”
Russia and China are forming a ‘de facto military alliance’
The “deepening military cooperation” between Russia and China signals that the two nations are forming a “de facto military alliance,” according to a former member at Secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
Crispin Rovere, who is also a former convener of the Australian Labor Party’s ACT International Affairs Policy Committee, told ValueWalk that “bilateral relations are stronger than ever” between Moscow and Beijing, but argued that the Russia-China drills may not be related to the current crisis on the peninsula.
“Given that these joint exercises are the second of two that were previously planned (the last taking place in the Baltic), this is probably true,” Mr. Rovere said.
Mr. Rovere also argued that the latest naval exercises by China and Russia are not a threat to Pyongyang against testing new missiles.
“No. Both China and Russia have made it clear they have no interest in conflict with North Korea, especially any form of military confrontation,” the North Korea crisis expert said, reminding that “so far North Korea’s threats have been levelled only against the United States and its allies.”
Mr. Rovere also argued that while both Moscow and Beijing condemn North’s missile tests, “neither is likely to employ coercion in a way that causes North Korea to destabilize or cause its leadership to turn upon themselves.”
How North Korea crisis becomes a ‘strategic objective’ of Russia and China
As for Russia and China’s role in North Korea, the expert argues that from the two nations’ point-of-view, Pyongyang’s nuclear program is “principally a problem for the US and its allies.” Mr. Rovere added that “as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities grow, the probability that the U.S. will retaliate militarily in response regional provocation diminishes, as any military escalation could result in the American continent being subject to nuclear attack.”
This causes allies to “lose faith in America’s assurances and the U.S. alliance system in East Asia starts to unravel,” the North Korea crisis expert said, calling “the unwinding of American alliances” a “strategic objective” of both Moscow and Beijing.
“Accordingly, there is almost no chance that either China or Russia will place enough pressure on North Korea to force a change in behavior,” Mr. Rovere concluded.
Last Monday, the 15-member UN Security Council, on which both Russia and China hold permanent member seats, unanimously voted in favor of its ninth sanctions resolution over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs since 2006. Experts warned that the North could retaliate with a “provocative, calculated” response for the new round of economy-crippling sanctions
A former U.S. Department of State diplomat specializing in North Korea, Mintaro Oba, told ValueWalk last week that the new sanctions could have “the potential to do some damage,” but he added that “the key question is really how rigorously they will be enforced.”
The U.S. had to water down its initial demands in order to gain the support of China and Russia, both of which have had a tendency to veto anti-Pyongyang resolutions at the United Nations.
Is it time for the U.S. to roll out a military solution?
Just a few days after the new sanctions resolution last week, Kim ordered what experts perceived was a response to the sanctions by firing a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile at Japan. The missile flew over the nation, which has been a long-time critic of Kim’s nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea’s latest missile could be just the first salvo in Kim’s arsenal following the new round of sanctions. In fact, a Japan and Korea editor at the East Asia Forum, Ben Ascione, told ValueWalk last week that the U.S. should brace for “a worst case scenario on the Korean peninsula” after the sanctions.
The researcher also suggested that the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan will have to “bolster multilateral contingency planning to be ready to deal with a worst case scenario.” He was referring to North Korea’s new provocative moves in retaliation for the sanctions.
Saying that the UN sanctions could have “crippling effects” on the North Korean economy if “effectively implemented,” Mr. Ascione also warned there was “no guarantee that Kim Jong-un will capitulate given the country’s historical national mentality of facing threats in all sides.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley echoed a similar sentiment on Sunday, saying that the UN had run out of options for containing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Mrs. Halest suggested that the U.S. may have no option but to let the Pentagon handle the North Korean crisis.
What does North Korea mean to China?
As experts remain puzzled about whether the Russia-China drills send a message to the West or to North Korea, the importance of the isolated state to Beijing cannot be underestimated. Although China-North Korea relations plummeted when Kim assumed power in 2011 and have been somewhat cold ever since, Beijing still views its neighbor as a vital buffer zone. For decades, Beijing has relied on North Korea as a buffer zone between itself and the U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea.
Despite the rising international pressure to cut ties with Pyongyang, Beijing still accounts for about 90% of the North’s trade and remains the rogue state’s key trade partner. However, China turned from rosy to thorny earlier this year when it banned coal imports from North Korea, stripping its long-time trade partner of income from its most lucrative export.
Last week, Beijing made another major move against Pyongyang when its biggest banks announced that they would be refusing to accept new transactions from North Korean individuals or companies. However, North Koreans are still expected to find ways to bypass the ban with the help of Chinese citizens living in the isolated nation.
Why does Russia care about North Korea?
The China-Russia drills have become a hot topic in the media as the two nations are often viewed as quasi-allies of North Korea. In fact, Moscow has had a well-established line of communication with Pyongyang since World War II when Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather, served as a captain in the Red Army.
Although Russia has much less influence over North Korea than China does, it remains a dark horse on the Korean Peninsula. However, Moscow’s interests in the North Korean issue cannot be overlooked. Vladivostok, which sits just a few hundred miles away from North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, is of great importance to Russia. Not only does it serve as Moscow’s gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, but it also is home to the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet serves as a hub for Russia’s energy trade.
Such close proximity to North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites creates a number of threats to Russian interests, including the threat of nuclear contamination in case of warfare actions or a nuclear missile’s malfunction. Like in China’s case, North Korea also serves Russia’s interests as a buffer zone between it and America’s missile defense systems, which Washington keeps moving closer to the North’s borders by deploying them in South Korea and Japan.