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Chaos Muppets vs. Order Muppets

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Russia and China share key strategic interests, but they don’t necessarily share the same view of the world:

For China, North Korea – and particularly its nuclear program – is a strategic liability. China prioritizes stability in its neighborhood, but North Korea purposefully pursues instability right next to China. This conflict of interests between the treaty allies exacerbates Chinese national security concerns, particularly regarding the United States and its hub-and-spoke system in the Indo-Pacific area. 

In response to North Korea’s rapid nuclear and missile developments, the United States has significantly ramped up its military presence on and around the Korean Peninsula, in consultation with its ally, South Korea. That includes the regular deployment of strategic (i.e., nuclear-capable) U.S. assets to the region, something China is not comfortable with.

Russia, however, takes a different view. Over the past year, Moscow has shifted its strategic approach to North Korea’s nuclear capability and provocations, from viewing them as a nuisance that disrupts the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime to a tactical countermeasure against the United States. From Russia’s perspective, distracting the U.S. – the primary military and economic presence as the NATO leader – is a goal unto itself, as Washington is a major obstacle to Russia’s desire to conquer Ukraine and influence the post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe. 

Russia has been importing North Korean weapons – 152 mm artillery ammunition,122 mm multiple rocket launcher ammunition, and other conventional weapons – for use against Ukraine. In return, it’s widely believed that North Korea receives Russia’s technical assistance for the research and development of advanced space and weapons technologies: nuclear-powered submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles, military reconnaissance satellites. North Korea also receives food and energy in addition to rare international support for its pariah regime. 

Russia actively endorses North Korea as a nuclear state and supports its “legitimate” use of nuclear weapons for its self-defense and beyond. As Kim Jong Un embraces a lower nuclear threshold, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling elites have also expressed their willingness to employ low-yield tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine and European NATO countries. 

Every relationships has these kinds of differences, but of course proliferation is a big issue and Beijing would rather not have Moscow stir its regional pot. It’s clear by this point that China will not bring Russia to heel in Ukraine; it’s not obvious that China could do so even if it wanted. But these kinds of differences can cause a lot of friction, especially when they involve basic conceptual disagreement about what the international order ought to look like.

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