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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Far-eastern promises

Western sanctions have brought Russia and China closer together, destroying one of the centrepieces of US foreign policy

EuropeWar ZonesAsiaUSA Politics

Portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are displayed side by side in Pyongyang, June 19, 2024. Photo courtesy KRT/Reuters.

A few years ago, it became fashionable to talk of a “pivot to Asia.” The rise of China, in particular, encouraged the United States to shift diplomatic and military resources away from Europe and the Middle East towards the Pacific, in the hope thereby of preserving its dominant position in the region. In line with this, in September 2022, the US government issued its Indo-Pacific Strategy that complained at length about the “harmful behavior” of the People’s Republic of China, including its efforts “to become the world’s most influential power,” “coercion and aggression that spans the globe,” “bullying of neighbors,” and “undermining human rights and international law.” The implication was that the Indo-Pacific region would henceforth be the US’s top priority.

​The war in Ukraine has since derailed this ambition, dragging America’s attention back to Europe. Moreover, the Ukrainian conflict is proving that the world is an interconnected place, as events there are influencing the balance of power elsewhere, including the Far-East. Western sanctions against Russia have, for instance, brought Russia and China closer together, destroying one of the centrepieces of US foreign policy since Nixon went to China in 1972, namely keeping Russia and China apart. Now, Russia is spreading its influence in the Pacific region, striking a further blow to US interests.

​This became clear last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin made a successful trip to the Far-East, visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and Vietnam. Of the two, the visit to the DPRK attracted the most attention, as it most clearly threatened American security. ​The highlight of Putin’s visit to the DPRK was the signing of the Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. According to the Treaty, “In case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion from an individual state or several states, the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay.” The treaty also stipulates that, “the two sides shall provide mechanisms for taking joint measures with the aim of strengthening the defence capabilities for preventing war and ensuring regional and global peace and security.”

​The talk of “strengthening defence capabilities” is bound to strike alarm in Western capitals. It also reveals the underlying motivation for the Treaty. While Russian military production has substantially increased since the initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian army is still burning through equipment and ammunition faster than it can produce it. North Korea, meanwhile, has vast stocks of both. Getting hold of some of these stocks is thus a high Russian priority.

​North Korea, meanwhile, is in desperate need of just about everything. In the military world what it specifically needs is high technology. The North Korean military is by Western standards very backward. It has compensated by substituting quantity for quality (thus the enormous stocks) and by investing heavily in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. It is these capabilities which cause particular concern in Washington, as the target they are clearly aimed at is the United States. To counter this threat, the US has invested heavily in ballistic missile defences, but should Moscow provide Pyongyang with more sophisticated missile technology, those defences would be rendered obsolete and the billions that the US has spent on them would all be for nothing. As it is, South Korean officials believe that North Korea used Russian technology in a recent effort to launch a spy satellite. North Korea, meanwhile, is thought to have provided Russia with a considerable number of artillery shells. Military cooperation between the two countries is on the rise, and not to America’s benefit.

​This was not Russia’s preferred path. For years, it has viewed North Korea as more of an irritant than an ally, and it has given its support to sanctions against the DPRK relating to its nuclear and missile programs. But times have changed. Western arms supplies to Ukraine have forced Moscow to reconsider its priorities. Getting hold of extra weapons and ammunition, and sending a message to Washington to avoid further escalation in Ukraine, are now forcing Putin to lay aside his former caution.

​Thus, if the threat to the United States from the DPRK now increases, this is something of an own goal by the Americans. For the past two years, the Biden administration has gradually abandoned most of the restrictions it had previously placed on the aid it provided Ukraine. Most notably, the US and its Western allies recently gave permission to Ukraine to use their weapons to strike into Russian territory. The assumption seems to have been that Russia was not capable of responding, and that Russian talk of “red lines” that the United States should not cross was a bluff. Some of the more belligerently pro-Ukrainian American activists have stated this assumption out loud. The Atlantic Council think tank, for instance, declared that “Red lines can be ignored and should be.” Russia’s red lines were “imaginary,” it said, and “All of these red lines have been crossed without provoking the threatened Russian response.” It followed that America could ignore Russian threats with impunity.

​This logic has some basis, in that Russia is already throwing nearly all it can at Ukraine. It lacks the means to escalate dramatically there, beyond the use of nuclear weapons. What the Americans have failed to realize, however, is that Russia can respond asymmetrically by escalating elsewhere, as it has now done with North Korea. Putin has made his policy very clear, telling journalists: “If someone thinks it is possible to supply such weapons to a war zone to attack our territory and create problems for us, why don’t we have a right to supply weapons of the same class to regions of the world where there will be strikes on sensitive facilities of those countries.”

​In response to Putin’s threat, a US State Department spokesperson told Newsweek magazine that this was “just more reckless and irresponsible saber-rattling from the Kremlin.” Maybe that is so, but “reckless and irresponsible saber-rattling” is threatening nonetheless, and something that cannot be ignored. The US is finding that its actions in one area are negatively affecting its interests in another, and that its belief that it can act with impunity because others lack the capability to strike back is not well-founded. At present, the US seems to think that it fight all its chosen enemies all at once, and that there is no need to prioritize among them (by focusing on China over Russia, for instance). As a result, it is driving all those enemies together. This may prove to be a serious error.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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