China, Russia and North Korea are strengthening their militaries and relations. The free world should be prepared.
A few years ago, China treated North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a supplicant and the country itself with benign neglect. North Korea has enormous economic problems, and Mr. Kim’s megalomania has made the country a pariah on the global stage. It was only through the brazen testing of missiles and nuclear saber-rattling that Pyongyang was able to garner any attention.
Similarly, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in September 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not treat Russian President Vladimir Putin as an equal. Mr. Xi’s conduct underscored China’s dominance, as Moscow’s war against Ukraine was faltering. Russia’s economy struggled to counter Western sanctions and its lack of success irritated Beijing.
By the end of the year, Moscow had already started to intensify its trade with Pyongyang. Russia needed ammunition after its failed blitz on Kyiv and subsequent retreats from other Ukrainian territories. North Korea exchanged war materiel for Russian technology, bolstering its armament and space industry.
The war in Ukraine exposed the lack of production capacity in the Russian defense industry. It especially showed the crucial role played by artillery, which requires a lot of ammunition. This is exactly what North Korea can provide, with its production facilities and stockpiles.
The shortage of ammunition production is also a significant problem for NATO, and as a result, Ukrainian defense continues to suffer. This deficit reflects broader military unpreparedness in Europe and weakness in the United States.
Trouble in the Pacific
Tensions are mounting between China and the U.S. President Xi, grappling with a potential legitimacy problem due to a weakening economy, needs allies. Not only has China been readying its economy for war and securing supply chains in neutral countries, it is also rebuilding a military alliance system. The most obvious allies now are Russia and North Korea, which Beijing has begun treating more as equals due to their confrontations with the free world.
Russia is indispensable to China because of its size, strategic geography, natural resources and military capabilities. Though the two nations have little sympathy for each other, they both have the U.S. as a common enemy. China’s attitude also appears to have changed in the last year, now seeing a war in Europe as potentially advantageous.
Anti-American sentiment prevails in Pyongyang, which might prompt North Korea to open a second flank against the U.S. in the Pacific. It has a strategic position and a huge military, both in terms of arms and soldiers.
China, North Korea and Russia are allying to challenge the international system built on the Pax Americana.
Signs are growing that war in the Pacific and a wider conflict in Europe could become a reality. A weak compromise in Ukraine, which unfortunately is becoming more likely, might embolden Kremlin ambitions. Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson has warned that war in his country is possible, and high-ranking NATO officials are now concerned the same could be true for the alliance.
More than 500 million people live in Europe, with annual defense budgets of $300 billion, see themselves as defenseless against Russia, with a population of 140 million and a rapidly increasing defense budget, expected to reach $400 billion in 2024. They need the support of 330 million Americans, much of whose military capabilities may be directed toward the Pacific. The status quo in Europe and its wide dependence on the U.S. is an embarrassing sign of weakness that will encourage invaders. This must change.
As an institution, the EU has no credibility on defense issues – and perhaps this should not be its role. However, major European countries – including the United Kingdom and Turkey – should make a common effort to coordinate their defenses to increase efficiency and credibility, as well as garner greater public support. A strong European alliance would also have to include EU members France, Germany and Poland. Germany still has a lot of homework to do in building a credible defense, including cultivating a determination to fight if faced with aggression.
But the real threat to freedom is still in the Pacific. Fortunately, here the U.S. has allies ready to act. Japan, South Korea and Australia are improving their military strength. Moreover, Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have recognized the urgency of the situation and are taking steps toward readying themselves as well.
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