Why China, Russia, and North Korea Joining Forces in the Indo-Pacific Isn’t a Prelude to War

Russia has reportedly proposed conducting three-way naval exercises with North Korea and China in the Indo-Pacific, potentially formalizing a union between countries that already individually pose security threats to the U.S. and its allies.

According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed the proposal to lawmakers in a closed-door briefing on Monday, alleging that the Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu offered such a show of alliance to North Korea during his meeting with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in July. Just this past weekend, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told Russian media that it “seems appropriate” to include North Korea in joint military drills between Russia and China.

China, so far, has kept silent on the proposal. And there’s also no sign yet that Kim will accept Russia’s overture, which would mark the first such large-scale drills for the isolationist state since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s, though North Korea does stand to benefit the most from joining forces with comparatively more modernized militaries.

Bernard Loo, senior fellow specializing in military and defense policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the proposal is almost certainly motivated by the recently formalized U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral defense alliance.

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In recent decades, the Indo-Pacific has become a theater of several security flashpoints. China is increasingly exerting its influence and military might on neighboring states and maritime territories, prompting the U.S. to shore up its security pacts with partners in the region. Nuclearization is also a growing concern around the Korean peninsula, as North Korea continues to ramp up missile testing and warmongering rhetoric.

Should looping in North Korea in joint China-Russia military exercises happen, observers say the risks to neighboring states would be minimal, as a trilateral naval drill would be less a preparation for war and more just a diplomatic signaling of a counter-alliance in the Indo-Pacific. “I see this as more a coming together of states, particularly North Korea and Russia, that have a dwindling circle of friends,” Loo says.

A potential naval exercise between China, Russia, and North Korea would move one step closer towards the establishment of a formal united front against the U.S. and its allies. But despite the world being seemingly split into two factions with this possible counter-alliance, experts say it could actually have a stabilizing effect by creating a check on each of its parties from instigating conflict unilaterally.

Russia and China, for example, are partly aligned on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, so they may not support North Korea’s continued threats to use its nuclear arsenal. “While North Korea is obviously a partner, due to the convergence of their strategic interests, I don't think there is a convergence in terms of what they think North Korea should do,” says Collin Koh, another senior fellow specializing in Asia-Pacific naval affairs at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

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Koh also tells TIME that any drills between the nations would only have “peacetime utility,” as they couldn’t properly simulate what would happen in actual combat due to geographical limitations. Exercises would likely only take place near the coasts of the Yellow Sea to the Korean peninsula’s west and the Sea of Japan to its east.

But while experts agree that the threat of a great power war is not likely to increase even if this new trilateral alliance were to be realized, it could still have a significant impact on the region by further forcing smaller states in the region, who have long abided by principles of non-alignment, to pick a side.

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