There was plenty of speculation last week when it became clear that despite multiple recent announcements trumpeting closer ties between his country and Russia, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un would not attend the huge Victory Day celebration in Moscow.
Rumors of coup threats, or perhaps a falling out between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were among the suggested reasons, but over the weekend the most likely deciding factor became clear: Kim did not want to be publicly upstaged by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The day before the parade through Red Square to commemorate the allied powers’ victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Russia and China announced a raft of new agreements, trade deals and treaties. In all, 32 different initiatives were signed, touching on regional trade, intelligence sharing, high-speed rail connections and a mutual non-aggression pact related to cyber warfare.
The two countries also announced that this summer their armed forces will conduct extensive joint exercises focused on anti-terror and peacekeeping operations.
Considering that China is far and away the largest country in the world by population and has, by some measures, become the largest economy on the planet, it wasn’t a surprise to see Xi sitting next to Putin during the Victory Day Parade.
Certainly, the seating arrangements were limited. Because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, leaders from the U.S., U.K., France and other major world powers declined to attend the celebration. Still, it must have been obvious to North Korea’s Kim that if he turned up last weekend, it would be only to play the role of junior partner — no position for a “supreme leader.”
The increasingly close relationship between Russia and China is about more than optics, though. The most obvious factor is economic. Western sanctions imposed as a result of Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula and continued support of armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine have taken a powerful toll on the Russian economy. For its part, China has declined to participate in the sanctions, meaning that its billions of citizens are not only a huge potential market for Russian exports but also provide ample leverage for Chinese leaders to negotiate favorable deals for the purchase of Russian oil and gas.
Both countries are also interested in countering U.S. global hegemony. Putin, in particular, has been very vocal about what he perceives as American efforts to restrain Russian global influence. China , though in more subtle ways, also regularly flexes its muscles as a global power. One high-profile example is its ongoing efforts to create artificial islands in the South China Sea that can support military installations.
There are, though, reasons to question whether China and Russia can form a long-lasting commitment to each other. The first is that in most respects, it is an unequal partnership. Russia, despite vocal pretensions to the contrary, is not a true global power. While Moscow can bully smaller neighbors like Ukraine and keep former Soviet republics such as Estonia and Lithuania worried about potential invasion, its ability to project global power is limited by an economy that is already in tatters and that has limited ability to repair itself in the near term.
China’s ever-growing influence on the global stage and in the developing world has already eclipsed Russia’s. And its economy, while far from as fully formed as those of some Western nations, has enormous potential for growth.
Still, there is no question that in the near term, this is a relationship of convenience that will benefit both nations. And if the biggest price is a pouty Kim Jong-un, that’s unlikely to bother anyone.
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