Indo-Pacific Watch

Jun 26, 2024

Beijing Watches Warily as Northeast Asia’s Alliances Shift

The recent conclusion of a Russia-North Korea pact is likely to unnerve China even more than the building of a Japan-South Korea-United States alliance.

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea June 19, 2024.
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As tensions rise in the South China Sea, relations between China and the United States remain tense, and as the world braces for the November US elections, countries in Northeast Asia are focused on relationship-building. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in mid-June—the Russian president’s first visit to the isolated country in 24 years—was the latest example of the shifting partnerships and alliances in the region. This realignment, however, could lead to a chain reaction of responses that might worsen tensions in the region.

Putin’s visit to North Korea didn’t just leave us with images of his good personal rapport with the country’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. The two leaders also signed a pact setting up a new comprehensive strategic partnership that includes a mutual defense clause requiring both sides to come to each other’s aid if either is attacked. This agreement comes on the heels of Putin’s visit to Beijing on May 16-17 and of a China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit that took place in Seoul on May 27. And mere weeks before US President Joe Biden plans to host his Japanese and South Korean counterparts for his own trilateral summit in July, on the sidelines of the NATO summit. This flurry of meetings and partnership-building efforts speaks to the rising concerns in the region over a potential conflict. 

Tokyo and Seoul Try to Mend Ties

Tokyo and Seoul are clear examples of the ongoing realignment in the region. Both US treaty allies, the two sides maintained very frosty relations for years, if not decades. Historical disputes rooted in the period when Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, for a long time prevented both sides from making common cause on issues of regional security or economic growth, or from forming a three-way alliance with Washington. Today, however, relations seem to be blossoming as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida make another attempt at mending ties.

Much to China’s dismay, its two neighbors have so far managed to put aside their historical disputes to strengthen their cooperation—including on military matters—with Washington and with each other. The first US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit, held at Camp David in August 2023, launched what the leaders called a “new era of trilateral partnership,” with greater commitments to enhance cooperation on security issues, and on economic and tech policy, and to improve coordination of responses to regional challenges.

Tokyo and Seoul’s renewed willingness to reengage and cooperate after decades of acrimony suggests a shared view that the common security challenges they face have become more pressing. North Korea is rapidly developing its nuclear arsenal. In early 2024, it abandoned its former pro-reunification policy in what is likely to lead to more hostilities toward South Korea. Pyongyang is also increasing its support for Moscow, and the potential transfer of Russian military technology to North Korea in exchange is a distinct possibility. 

Meanwhile, incidents at sea with China are becoming increasingly commonplace in the East and South China Seas and around Taiwan, as Beijing more aggressively pursues its expansive territorial claims in the region. Escalation is not out of the question, and the risk that a conflict may break out in the Indo-Pacific is significant. 

The Importance of Partnerships

Under such circumstances, the importance of having close ties with neighboring, like-minded countries cannot be overstated. Russia’s war against Ukraine has only brought home this point. The two and a half years of war will have highlighted for both Tokyo and Seoul the importance of collective deterrence, of stepping up military preparedness ahead of a conflict, as well as of securing and maintaining the support of international partners. This is likely also one of the reasons behind Japan and South Korea’s growing engagement with NATO. Kishida and Yoon are expected to attend the transatlantic alliance’s summit in Washington in July for another show of cooperation.

This, however, does not represent a decision by Tokyo or Seoul to fully pick sides, aligning with the US and the West and abandoning their ties with Beijing. China remains a key trading partner for both nations (and vice versa), so both Japan and South Korea are simultaneously working to keep their relations with Beijing as smooth and functional as possible. The revival of the China-Japan-South Korea summit format in May 2024, or of the China-South Korea 2+2 talks are examples of this approach, and of Beijing’s wish to continue engaging with the two US allies.

In a model that Europe could draw some lessons from, Tokyo and Seoul have successfully managed to strengthen ties with the US and push back against China’s coercive behavior, while still keeping the channels of communication open and carving out a few areas for potential cooperation. This has happened without massive retaliation from Beijing of the kind that many in Europe fret over. The joint statement from their trilateral summit was a perfect example of this: It mostly avoided mentioning any friction points, except those where all three sides have some common ground, such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on the few areas where exchanges and cooperation—even if limited—are deemed possible, such as people-to-people exchanges, sustainable development, public health, or disaster relief.

China’s Difficult International Environment

It is not only Tokyo and Seoul that are facing a complicated geopolitical picture that they must navigate, however. Beijing’s claims of an “unusually complex international environment” certainly ring true these days. But this is not all the United States’ doing, as China’s leaders and party mouthpieces like to claim. Beijing has painted itself into a corner through its own behavior and choices.

China’s coercive and aggressive actions in the region, most recently against the Philippines, have pushed Seoul and Tokyo closer together and closer to the US, likely confirming Beijing’s fears that Washington is building a coalition designed to contain China. And its decision to stand by Moscow since the start of its war against Ukraine, but to refuse to deliver lethal weapons, has had the effect of forcing Russia to turn to North Korea for military equipment. This new relationship between two of China’s key international partners is likely to be a cause for concern among China’s leaders.

Beijing remains North Korea’s main international partner, accounting for over 90 percent of North Korea’s trade and making Pyongyang economically dependent on China. This gives Beijing a certain amount of leverage over the Kim regime, although past attempts at using it to influence North Korea’s behavior have delivered mixed results. Pyongyang, meanwhile, is likely seeing an opportunity to partly get out from under Beijing’s thumb by increasing its engagement with Russia now that Moscow is in need of international partners. There is evidence that North Korea is sending munitions and other weapons to Russia, in exchange for food and energy. And some reports suggest that North Korea may be considering sending troops to Ukraine to support Russia. Their new comprehensive strategic partnership treaty could herald more Russian tech transfers to Pyongyang, which might support and accelerate North Korea’s nuclear and space programs.

An argument could be made that Beijing might be in favor of this new partnership, as it could help Russia in Ukraine without exposing China to Western sanctions, make things harder for the US in the region, and act as a counterbalance to the US-Japan-South Korea alliance. But while there is likely some truth to the fact that Beijing might see some benefits to North Korea’s support for Russia, this new Moscow-Pyongyang axis is most likely causing headaches in Beijing, rather than relieving them. 

With Moscow providing greater economic and military support to North Korea, China could lose leverage over a difficult but important partner, which also happens to be its only treaty ally. China’s leaders are likely also concerned over the potential for greater instability in the Korean Peninsula and the region. An emboldened Kim Jong-un may well revert to more aggressive and provocative behavior. This could lead to chain reactions that would add to the brewing crisis, forcing Beijing to respond.

China might seek to shore up ties with Pyongyang to avoid being cut out. But a trilateral partnership seems out of the question for now. Beijing has no interest in being considered part of an “axis of dictatorships,” nor does it want to be held responsible for Pyongyang’s—or Moscow’s—behavior. 

Beijing can’t be happy about the deepening cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States, especially in the military sphere, as it will raise the stakes for China’s behavior, condition its responses on key issues, and create obstacles for its regional ambitions. But it is the fact that a new alliance between its two key partners might do the same, in a way that bypasses Beijing’s control. This will be of almost greater concern to China’s leaders. If a conflict breaks out, Beijing could be left more isolated than ever, facing a closer US-Japan-South Korea alliance.

Helena Legarda is lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin and INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Indo-Pacific Watch columnist.

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