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The next test of China-Russia cooperation: containing the North Korea crisis

Andrew Hammond says the collaboration between Russia and China has often been exaggerated but the two have genuine interests to explore, including the creation of alternative financial institutions, energy exploration and preventing conflict in Korea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 4:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 4:24pm

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is due to visit China this week to meet President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other senior officials. The trip will underline growing bilateral dialogue between Beijing and Moscow, including on key regional and global issues such as the Korean nuclear stand-off and the Syrian conflict.

The primary emphasis of the visit is to try to deepen the bilateral political and economic partnership. China and Russia already enjoy relatively extensive economic cooperation, in particular, which has warmed in several areas since the Ukraine crisis saw Moscow’s suspension from the G8.

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Russia has announced plans for numerous cooperation projects with China, including a new method of interbank transfers, and a joint credit agency to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure allowing them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions.

They are also involved in creating alternative forums to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank. This will finance infrastructure and other projects in the BRICS member states, and provide a related US$100 billion special currency reserve fund.

Moreover, the two have signed a US$400 billion natural gas supply deal which will involve a 3,200km pipeline from eastern Siberia to northeast China. They have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to China’s Xinjiang province.

Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil and gas sector to direct investment from Beijing. Moreover, 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.

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While the warming of ties since the Ukraine crisis is sometimes overstated, with little substantial progress on the array of economic and financial projects announced in recent years, the boost to the bilateral cooperation agenda has paid off in numerous areas, including working toward stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues. Both parties look to this week’s meetings to enhance strategic coordination, from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

One key item on the agenda is likely to be North Korea nuclear tensions. China and Russia know the security problems on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution: both are grappling with how best to respond to Pyongyang’s missile launches and nuclear tests.

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Recent US rhetoric has led to heightened concern, in Beijing in particular, that Washington might now be thinking much more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. US President Donald Trump recently asserted that North Korea “is causing tremendous problems and is something that has to be dealt with, and probably dealt with rapidly”.

This builds on his comments several months ago – before meeting Xi in Florida – that if Beijing “is not going to solve North Korea, we [the United States] will”. This upped the ante from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s striking announcement that the US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang is over.

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US rhetoric is one reason why Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has asserted that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brake to both [US and North Korean] trains”. Both Beijing and Moscow are concerned that tensions on the peninsula could spiral out of control and have indicated support for a UN Security Council initiative building on recent sanctions.

The UN measure favoured by Russia and China would require the US and South Korea to halt military drills and deployment of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system.

China vehemently opposes THAAD. Russia shares this concern, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov asserting that it is a “destabilising factor” ... in line with the vicious logic of creating a global missile shield”.

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The proposed UN initiative would also put further pressure on North Korea to stop missile and nuclear testing. It is feared that Pyongyang is already preparing for new nuclear and missile tests, potentially timed to embarrass Trump when he visits the region in November for 12 days.

Overall, Medvedev’s visit will highlight the growing willingness of both sides to develop a cooperation agenda. However, despite positive mood music at the meetings, the warming of ties should not be overstated.

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