by Ziqian Patrick Zheng
Rebuilding the Eastern Bloc
China’s leader Xi Jinping arrived by plane in North Korea on June 20th, 2019. Although this is Xi’s fifth summit with Kim Jong Un since last year, this is the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has actually visited North Korea. At Pyongyang International Airport, Xi was met by Chairman Kim Jong Un and received full military honors including a 21-gun salute and a march-past by the Supreme Guard Command Honor Guard Battalion and the Central Military Band of the Korean People’s Army. Xi was also the first Chinese leader to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the Mecca of North Korea. More than 100,000 people lined up along the streets of Pyongyang to welcome Xi. Although the country is famous for its hospitality to foreign leaders, these grand welcoming events are still very unusual for North Korea.
Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un also paid a visit to Russia and met with Putin. It was the first meeting between North Korean and Russian leaders since 2011. China and Russia have grown closer both economically and politically in the second decade of the 21st century. The growing mutual affection between China, Russia, and North Korea would easily remind people of the fear of the Cold War era. As U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats noted in the intelligence community’s threat assessment of 2019, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” Just like Dan Coats, many people fear that the recent interactions between China, Russia, and North Korea are the prelude of the next Cold War.
The two leaders shaking on their 'invincible' friendship by Korean Central News Agency
With its growing economy, China can easily find supporters or “friends” around the world. Countries would be happy to support China verbally in international affairs in return for economic benefits. On the contrary, DPRK and Russia are both isolated by western countries and have bad reputations for being threats to international peace. Just like playing with the weird kids at school, teaming up with them would damage the public image of China and make it seem more aggressive to other countries. On the other hand, programs like the Belt and Road Initiative allow China to expand its friendship network using its growing economic power, making it easier for China to find other supporters around the world. As a result, teaming up with China not only brings Russia and North Korea economic benefits, but also provides them with access to new potential allies. But why is China getting closer to Russia and North Korea?
The previous communist ideological ties between China, Russia, and North Korea waned for years. Despite what they claim to be, none of the three countries are truly communist or democratic. Instead of following any universal ideological value, what binds these countries is their strong state-sponsored nationalist ideas. As a result, these countries team up not because of their ideological ties or their nostalgia of the cold war era friendship, but because of their own national interests. Although Russia and North Korea are less powerful in terms of their soft power, they both have a strong military power. Obviously, China and Russia have been engaged in close military interactions in the previous years.
Although North Korea seems weaker in terms of military power because of less advanced technologies and outdated military equipment, it is still considered one of the top threats to the U.S. because of its colossal army and arsenal of up to several dozen self-designed nuclear weapons. With more than one million active military personnel, the Korean People’s Army is ranked as the fourth largest army in the world. Most importantly, North Korea is the only country in the world that has a mutual defense treaty with China. Signed in 1961, the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty declares that the two nations would “undertake all necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation.” This serves as the legal basis for China and North Korea to provide military support to each other during wartime. As a result, by pulling Russia and North Korea to its side, China is seeking to maintain a balance with the U.S. and its allies in terms of hard power, especially military power.
What Do the Scholars Think?
Given the significant military threat these countries could pose, we have to face the fact that China is getting closer to Russia and North Korea than in the previous years. What is the possibility of a new cold war or even a war between the U.S. and these countries? A 2014 TRIP snap poll asked IR scholars to rate the possibility for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China over the next decade. The graphs for both China and Russia are right skewed with a mode at 1 or 2 (very unlikely to go to war with the U.S.).
When the same questions were asked again in a TRIP Faculty Survey in 2017, the answer was mostly the same. The distribution of both China and Russia moved slightly to the right, but the general shape does not change (still unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China).
These data show that most of the IR scholars that participated in the TRIP surveys agree that it is unlikely for the U.S. to become involved in direct military conflict with either China and Russia despite the ongoing tensions between these countries in other areas. This might be because China and Russia have a much stronger military power than North Korea. Both Russia and China have a large number of nuclear warheads which provides them with the ability of mutually assured destruction and thus deters the U.S. from starting a war. The economic connections between China and the U.S. might also be a reason that prevents them from going to war as it increases the opportunity cost of war between these two countries.
However, in the same faculty survey, scholars present a very different forecast when they are asked about the possibility of the U.S. going to war with North Korea. The graph for DPRK is more symmetric, with a mode at 5.
The survey shows that IR scholars think it is moderately likely that North Korea will go to war with the U.S. Still, nearly half (47.22 percent) of the scholars chose numbers less than 5, indicating they think war is less likely than it is likely.
Despite the small possibility of war, scholars still recognize China as a major opponent of the U.S. both today and in the foreseeable future. Question #6 of the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey asked the scholars about the area of greatest strategic importance to the U.S. today. The majority of the scholars (54.65 percent) consider East Asia to be the most strategically important area to the U.S today. US scholars’ concern about China becomes even more extreme when the scholars are asked about the most strategically important area to the U.S. in 20 years: 69.61 percent of scholars said East Asia.
In 2014, 38.45 percent of scholars answered yes when asked if they think that the U.S. and Russia are heading back toward a Cold War.
This shows that there are still a lot of scholars who worry about the emergence of another Cold War, even 20 years after the first one had ended. Due to the growing tensions with China and the strategic importance of East Asia, as well as the increasing ties between Russia, China ,and North Korea, there might be more scholars who would be concerned about China and the U.S. are heading towards a Cold War as well.
Goodbye to the Belle Époque
Although most of the scholars think that it is very unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China, the surveys do not deny the possibility of a potential cold war between the U.S. and these countries. Instead of directly engaging in military conflict with the U.S., China and Russia are using their military power to secure strategic national interests in many other areas. Now that China is getting closer with Russia and North Korea, the possible military alliance between these three countries has the potential to become the Sword of Damocles above the U.S. and its allies. As U.S. strategic interests shift towards East Asia, the possibility of a new cold war or small-scale military confrontations still exists despite the diminished role of an ideological conflict between East and West.
Patrick Zheng is a rising sophomore at William & Mary. He intends to double major in History and Economics. Patrick is interested in International Relations and Civil Rights issues. He has worked as a research assistant with Professor Betsy Konefal on her project studying human rights violations during Guatemalan Civil War. He was also a member of a research team based in the William & Mary Diplomacy Lab, studying social media in Turkey. This summer, Patrick is excited to see the connections TRIP is building between academia and policymakers.