How North Korea can alter the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific

A trilateral partnership involving Russia and China could disrupt US-led plans in the East

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin visit the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the Russian city of Tsiolkovsky on Wednesday. AP Photo
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have forged an agreement that appears convenient for both parties in the context of their strategic standoff with the US and its allies.

More importantly, a trilateral partnership may be emerging between China, Russia and North Korea that sends a message of defiance to Washington and its partners in the Quad – including Australia, India and Japan – and allies such as South Korea.

The message appears to be that China and Russia now have on their side a country that can cause disruptions in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

The Kim-Putin meeting came hot on the heels of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam, which China will have closely followed. Earlier, at the G20 summit in New Delhi, the Biden administration also announced an economic corridor project involving India, key Arab Gulf countries and Europe. Beijing might view the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) as a competitor to its own Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which it launched a decade ago as a fundamental infrastructure component of its strategic vision.

The emergence of these new geopolitical partnerships foreshadows possible global confrontations of indeterminate scope and dimensions.

The China-Russia-North Korea partnership has the potential to alter the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific. Following Mr Kim’s visit to Russia, the Kremlin might be able to essentially convey to the West that if it needs to deal with a capricious, nuclear-armed and occasionally provocative state such as North Korea, it will need to involve Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China are increasingly committed to enhancing their strategic co-operation in the Asia-Pacific, irrespective of the latter’s stance on the war in Ukraine. Indeed, these are two distinct matters, and the two countries’ focus is squarely on fortifying the strategic, military and political dimensions of their partnership through various means, including their favourable relations with the North Korean regime.

BRI is different from IMEEC in that it is Chinese-led and Chinese-funded, while the latter is a multilateral project

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to welcome Mr Putin to Beijing next month to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the BRI’s launch. Next week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will head to Moscow to monitor the growing co-operation between the two countries.

In the context of the bilateral relationship between Russia and North Korea and the leaders’ meeting at a cosmodrome in the Russian Far East, Mr Kim said: “Russia has risen to a sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security … and we will be together in the fight against imperialism.”

These strong words were matched with an arms agreement to support the war in Ukraine, including providing millions of Soviet-era artillery shells that Moscow needs in the Donbas campaign. Incidentally, North Korea recognises Russia’s sovereignty over Ukrainian territories.

In return, Mr Kim received a commitment from Russia to develop North Korea’s armed forces and modernise its military industry, in addition to providing assistance to overcome the deadly food crisis in his country. With this commitment, Russia has essentially delivered a blow to the UN sanctions on Pyongyang.

Such steps taken by Moscow have been in response to its being left out in the cold by the West over the past 18 months. Beijing, on the other hand, has resisted the opportunity to announce measures that Washington might consider retaliatory against its moves to consolidate its power in recent weeks and months.

The IMEEC, for instance, is a pragmatic economic project by which the US might be signalling to the rest of the world that there is room to build global infrastructure networks with its support. Many countries will be interested in accessing these networks because they are operationally and economically beneficial. Moreover, this project will give the US and India an enhanced role and influence with a group of important countries in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.

This initiative was unveiled not long before the BRI anniversary summit in October.

The BRI is different from the IMEEC in that it is Chinese-led and Chinese-funded, while the latter is a multilateral project. Some might view it as an American ploy to compete with China, while others might point to the potential economic benefits for all the countries involved. Then there are those who might argue that it is aimed at excluding Russia and Iran and thwarting their projects with India, including the International North-South Transport Corridor.

Whatever one’s assessment, the US will hope the project ends up aiding the establishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, noting that it passes through Jordan and then through the Israeli port of Haifa. Additionally, Washington will hope to further strengthen its relations with New Delhi within the context of their strategic position towards Beijing.

For their part, Emirati and Saudi involvement in the IMEEC does not imply hostility towards or alignment against any country. Rather, the two countries prioritise their interests over provocative alliances and are open to adjusting their policies and positions as long as their national and regional interests are met.

Riyadh will keep an open mind regarding potential normalisation with Israel, provided the US encourages the latter to pursue a two-state solution and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The IMEEC is an infrastructure development and port connectivity project that will facilitate trade. It will include the construction of a cross-border railway and shipping network, connecting ships to trains, and building pipelines for the export and import of electricity and clean hydrogen to enhance global energy security.

It is an ambitious project with the potential to benefit the Middle East. For it represents a new language in international relations that could replace the sterile rhetoric that includes threats as a tactic and recalcitrance as a strategy.

Lebanon remains a victim of this sterile rhetoric.

Indeed, the Beirut Port could have been a part of this project – not just the one in Haifa. However, political instability and the governing class’s inability to make decisions hinder any consideration of a role for Lebanon’s ports and railways.

The 2020 blast makes the port unsuitable for infrastructure projects. Yet if, by some miracle, Lebanon had been able to free itself from the control of its political class and its attempts to siphon off its natural resources, the country could have participated in such a developmental and civilisational project.

Published: September 17, 2023, 2:00 PM