July 15, 2024No Comments

On the horns of a dilemma, again! China’s uncomfortable position in the Moscow-Pyongyang Cooperation

by Ho Ting (Bosco) Hung - Asia & China Team

While Russia continues its brutal invasion of Ukraine, its destabilising behaviour has spread further eastward to the Korean Peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea to seek continued military support, which is surprising since international travel has been rare for Putin since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. During the trip, Putin signed a new comprehensive strategic partnership pact with Kim Jong-un. The new treaty has not only exacerbated the already high geopolitical instability in the world, but it has also worsened China’s diplomatic dilemma. Despite having some ups and downs in its relations with North Korea, China is ultimately a formal ally of North Korea. With the new treaty, China appears to be increasingly drawn to the whirlpool of conflicts and tensions created by Russia and North Korea. 

As one of the most unpredictable and diplomatically disengaged governments in the world, North Korea has significantly increased its missile tests and applied an assertive rhetoric in the recent decade. Earlier this year, Kim announced a major policy shift towards South Korea, ruling out any possibility of peaceful reunification. Its military actions is further demonstrated by its active assistance for Russia, which is isolated by the West and is desperate for military support during the Russia-Ukraine War.

The signing of a strategic partnership pact is likely to bolster the ambitions of both Russia and North Korea, exacerbating chaos and tensions in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, respectively. This move signals to international community that neither country intends to yield to US hegemony. Instead, they prefer to remain diplomatically isolated, relying on their autocratic ally for support.

Although the signing of the new treaty is a bilateral move, China is unlikely to remain uninvolved due to its close relations with Russia and North Korea and the US's strong concern regarding developments on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s destabilising behaviour has long been the US’s top foreign policy concern, especially because of its status as a nuclear power. Therefore, although the actual details of the pact have not yet been released, the expansion of the Russia-North Korean tie is likely to draw the US’s attention. Meanwhile, since China has a mutual defence agreement in the Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance first signed in 1961 with North Korea, in any case of conflict escalation, China could be dragged by its ‘friends’ into the saga and fall vulnerable to Western criticisms or retaliation. The ever-expanding ties between Russia and North Korea could also encourage the US and its allies to expand their presence in the Indo-Pacific region or give them a legitimate reason to do so, which will be unfavourable to Chinese interests.

Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay

This puts increasing pressure on China not to act in accordance with its friends’ interests, even if this may disappoint its Russian and North Korean friends. Admittedly, Russia and North Korea are China’s key allies in counteracting US influence and facilitating China’s revision of the international order. However, Russia is currently engaged in a conflict with Ukraine and facing international sanctions, while North Korea is notorious for its human rights infringement and its reluctance to denuclearise. In an environment with high geopolitical tension and the possibility of American countermeasures, it is advisable to distance itself from both countries to avoid any repercussions that could harm its international reputation and further drag down its economic growth. China’s reluctance to publicly support Russia’s invasion despite having a ‘no-limit’ partnership with Russia is a stark example reflecting such a mentality.

Meanwhile, as China’s economy is slowing down and the US is trying to strengthen its ties with Japan and South Korea, China has an increasing need to improve its relations with the two democratic nations. This is especially important in avoiding the creation of an Asian NATO or further advancing their military capabilities. As North Korea continues to challenge its two Northeast Asian neighbors, China's frustrations will likely increase. Consequently, China has a strong incentive to avoid being perceived as forming a contentious alliance with Russia and North Korea.

Nonetheless, as Japan and South Korea have witnessed China’s growing assertiveness and are developing strategic ties with the US, they will certainly be cautious about any Chinese proposals for cooperation or alleviating tensions. The US is also likely to impose pressure on Japan and South Korea not to side with China. In this sense, siding with North Korea or Russia and fixing ties with the Northeast Asian countries appear unfeasible and risky. Caught in a dilemma, China will find it hard to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape. 

March 2, 2023No Comments

Cybersecurity: the Nexus Between Public and Private Sector

For the third Webinar of the 2022/2023 season, we had the pleasure to host three top experts in the field of Cybersecurity: Luca Nicoletti from the Italian National Cybersecurity Agency, Andrea Rigoni from Deloitte, and Antonello Vitale, a former Executive of the Italian Intelligence Community.

These experts explored the complex relationship between the public and the private sector in the context of cybersecurity - a relationship with countless challenges as well as opportunities. The event was chaired by our very own Martina Gambacorta, a member and researcher of the ITSS team.