North Korea crisis reveals true nature of Russia-China relationship

Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at a banquet at Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017
It was during this banquet at Mar-a-Lago when U.S. President Donald Trump told Chinse President Xi Jinping that the U.S. had hit Syria with a barrage of missiles (source: dpa)

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States in early April. During an official dinner, President Donald Trump told him that the U.S. Navy had just hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. President Trump also told President Xi that Russia had already been informed of the strike. Chinese media reported that President Xi was having chocolate cake when he received the news from the American president.

President Xi fell silent for about 10 seconds, then calmly asked his translator to repeat the message. After the translator related the news again, Mr. Xi said, “Considering they have done such a horrible thing to the children, I see no problem with the action.” Chinese people believe this means President Xi agreed to the U.S. taking military action. Of course, he had no choice but to agree – there was no calling back those missiles.

Surprises and threats

Many people seem to believe that China and Russia have always had a relationship whereby they could work closely to resolve certain issues together, such as dealing with North Korea – something the Americans have struggled with. On this occasion, it seems that Moscow did not inform Beijing that the U.S. was going to strike Syria. If the relationship is so strong, would the Russians not have informed the Chinese about the strike as soon as they had received such critical information? Perhaps Mr. Trump dropped the news at the dinner table to gauge just how close China and Russia really are.

In recent months, the North Korean government newspaper has constantly harangued the Chinese government. It especially shocked Beijing when the newspaper referred to China as “the Chinese mainland” to distinguish it from Taiwan.

This reminded the Chinese that in 1991, Beijing sent a delegation to Pyongyang to inform the late leader Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong-un, that China would initiate official diplomatic relations with South Korea. Kim Il-sung was furious and threatened the Chinese officials that North Korea would build a relationship with Taiwan as retaliation.

Finally, Pyongyang did not carry out that threat; Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was too strong to allow it to happen.

Russia steps in

Some Chinese people ask how Kim Jong-un dare challenge and attempt to humiliate China in this way. Who gives him the courage and who is supporting him? Aren’t they afraid of China cutting off exports to them? Many Chinese believe there is some conspiracy at work. And to be fair, especially when it comes to North Korea, things are not usually as simple as they seem.

In January, the Chinese government discovered that Pyongyang had sent out its first wishes for a happy New Year to Moscow, not Beijing. China also learned that although it had halted most of its coal trade with North Korea over the past two years, Russia had stepped in to fill the gap, and was now Pyongyang’s top coal supplier. Moreover, North Korea has been importing crude oil from Russia since 2011, to reduce its energy dependence on China. Early this year, Russian government officials even visited Pyongyang to discuss railway transportation cooperation. No wonder Kim Jong-un has the nerve to so openly tell off China.

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula has revealed the true nature of the relationship between China and Russia. Who would have guessed?

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