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North Korea nuclear crisis

North Korea will be top of the agenda as Xi meets Putin in Moscow

Andrew Hammond says while the primary emphasis will be on deepening the Sino-Russian partnership, presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will find their meetings overshadowed by concerns over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the risk of a pre-emptive US strike

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 11:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 8:37pm

The state visit to Russia by President Xi Jinping (習近平) next week, just before the G20 summit in Germany, will underline the growing Sino-Russian dialogue on key regional and global issues, including the Korean nuclear stand-off.

Coming after President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Beijing in May for the Belt and Road Forum , the primary emphasis of Xi’s visit will be on deepening their political and economic partnership. China and Russia already enjoy a relatively extensive economic dialogue, which has warmed since the Crimea crisis in Ukraine saw Moscow suspended from the G8.

Bilateral cooperation has helped to enable work towards stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues

Russia’s plans for cooperation projects include a new method for inter-bank transfers, and a joint credit agency. The two states have also signed a US$400 billion natural gas supply deal. Chinese firms have stepped in to provide Russian counterparts with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses, in the wake of Western sanctions. The boost to the bilateral cooperation agenda has helped to enable work towards stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues, and both parties are looking at the Xi-Putin meetings to enhance strategic coordination.

The top item on the agenda is likely to be North Korean nuclear tensions, as both China and Russia grapple with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests.

Watch: How the North Korean situation intensified in just 12 days

Recent US rhetoric has given Beijing cause for concern that Washington may be serious about a pre-emptive strike. President Donald Trump on Monday asserted that North Korea “is causing tremendous problems and is something that has to be dealt with, [probably] rapidly”. China and Russia are concerned that tensions on the peninsula could spiral out of control, and previously indicated support for a Security Cou ncil initiative that would build on last year’s UN vote to tighten some sanctions.

That would require the US and South Korea to halt military drills and deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system. Beijing is vehemently opposed to THAAD, on fears it could be used by the US to spy on China, as much as for targeting North Korean missiles.

Russia shares this concern. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov asserted that THAAD is a “destabilising factor” that is “in line with the vicious logic of creating a global missile shield”, while warning that it would undermine the “military balance in the region”.

[Sweeping measures against Pyongyang] could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation

The UN initiative would also put further pressure on North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear testing. However, unlike the US, China has been reluctant to take more sweeping measures against its ally, the key reason being it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised.

Chinese officials believe that would risk North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and create the possibility of the implosion of the regime, which would not be in Beijing’s interest. This is not least because it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation.

Overall, Xi’s visit to Moscow will highlight the willingness of both sides to develop a significant cooperation agenda. However, the warming of ties should not be overstated, given the limited progress so far on an array of bilateral projects announced in recent years.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics