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Vladimir Putin’s rolling out of the red carpet for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is likely to displease Xi Jinping.
For China, North Korea has long been like a hot-headed little brother, rather than fulfilling the more obedient role it would like it to – taking direction from and being dependent upon Beijing.
Where is China on this? Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.Credit: AP
For Xi, it is a rogue move, and indeed an affront, for Kim to choose Moscow over Beijing for a rare visit abroad, and his first in years – particularly given that China was a lifeline for North Korea through the pandemic.
Even worse, Kim’s visit could throw regional stability off course, something that China values deeply.
It is unclear how material North Korea’s military support could be to Russia, but anything that might prolong the war in Ukraine is problematic for Beijing.
An arms deal with North Korea may also lead to the Kremlin turning to China to ask for further support, putting Beijing in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has been a headache for Beijing from day one.
The conflict gets in the way of China’s broader ambitions as it emerges from the pandemic – primarily to show the world that it is open and ready to do business again, after years of being locked down.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Beijing, coming at a moment of geopolitical tensions over a sharper China.
Beijing doesn’t want to be forced onto one side or the other. Xi personally courted Putin, so it would be embarrassing to have a public break from Russia at this point – doing so would indicate that Xi perhaps made a poor decision.
Not happy: Xi Jinping, China’s president.Credit: Bloomberg
It is why Beijing has, more than a year into the war, shied away from denouncing Putin’s invasion, and refuses to publicly take a side.
But Xi also ultimately sees this as a pivotal moment for the rise of China, and communist states like it, hence he has to find a way to ride the wave.
From Beijing’s perspective, the sooner the war ends, the better. That outlook is likely a driving motivation behind its attempts to cast itself as a peace broker.
But most of all, greater co-operation between North Korea and Russia could throw off the delicate balance in the Indo-Pacific, a region where China has for so long pulled the puppet strings.
Nothing can quite knock China from its dominant position, but anything that might be potentially destabilising – even by a fraction – will upset Beijing at a moment when what it wants is a smoother operating environment.
For North Korea, deal or not, a visit to Russia gives it bragging rights – a way to show that it remains relevant, and that it can even be of assistance to large nations.
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