Cold War’s revived axis: Russia, China and North Korea

The rise of China and other regional powers has caused the world to shift back to a fuzzy world order, often referred to as multipolar, which it certainly is not.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

A photograph can, at times, speak louder than a million words. The ‘Victory Day’ celebrations in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), on July 27 to mark the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 and the division of Korea into North and South at the 38th parallel, was underscored by a picture of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sharing the stage with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and a ranking member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Li Hongzhong.

This snapshot may once again underline a significant shift in global geopolitics. It marks the resuscitation of Cold War alliances, given the fact that the Korean conflict that commenced in 1950 was the first hot war that pitted the US, the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR), and the newly established People’s Republic of China on opposing sides after the Cold war commenced at the end of WWII. While the US was fighting for the South of Korea, the erstwhile USSR and China supported the North.

After the end of the Cold War in 1989, countries such as China and even Russia as the successor state of the USSR had distanced themselves publicly from North Korea, though they continued to support it privately. North Korea was labelled a member of the alleged “axis of evil”. The fact that the country is being publicly acknowledged again is a direct outcome of the repolarisation that the Russian aggression on Ukraine has unleashed.

This reindorsement of North Korea by China and Russia after the out-of-the-box summitry between the then United States president, Donald Trump, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Hanoi and the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas to de-nuclearise North Korea, cocks a snook at the international non-proliferation order.

Five countries, namely the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, are recognised as Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Then there are three de facto NWS, namely India, Pakistan and North Korea, which are not a part of the NPT. Other closet nuclear weapon states have not declared their capacity publicly yet. This contradistinction between the first-age nuclear powers—declared NWS—and the second-age nuclear powers—the de facto NWS—lies at the heart of the dilemma as to how the future of the nuclear order would be shaped.

Within the de facto NWS, India falls into a unique category. It is recognised as a responsible NWS with an impeccable non-proliferation track record. That is why India got a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for its Civil Nuclear Deal with the US in 2008. The other two, Pakistan and North Korea, are notorious as reckless nuclear and missile technology proliferators, with organic linkages between AQ Khan’s Nuclear Walmart and the North Korean regime being evidenced and documented beyond refutation.

It, therefore, is a bit intriguing that both Russia and China chose to publicly re-associate themselves with North Korea after a fairly long hiatus, for, in addition to signalling that they are prepared to overlook the past track record of nuclear proliferation, this realignment of political constellations has implications for the strategic stability of North Asia and East Asia where the United States and China are direct rivals and Russia also has a formidable naval presence in Vladivostok where the Pacific Fleet of the Russian Navy is based.

A little flashback would help provide context. At the end of WWII, the world was divided into two camps: the American-led NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. However, the extent of these cleavages went beyond hard power as both blocs attempted to promote their ideas, values and ideologies through the medium of culture too.

The Soviet bloc used to organise the World Festival of Youth and Students, which commenced in 1947. The event showcased global youth solidarity with communist and socialist worldviews. It was positioned against Western expansionism and colonisation of the mind space by ‘pulp mores’. Ironically enough, it was curated by totalitarian states of the Soviet bloc that themselves did not have a shred of respect for either dissent or human rights.

The 13th World Festival of Youth and Students was held in North Korea in July 1989. Thousands of young people travelled in Aeroflot planes from around the world to Pyongyang for festivities in a nation ravaged by malnutrition, stunting, paranoia and a chilling record of arbitrary disappearances of those who fell out of favour with the leadership. It was the last time North Korea ever organised an event of such grandiose scale as afterwards, it was subjected to enhanced Western sanctions and global isolation.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 led to the decade of Pax Americana till 2001, during which the United States enjoyed global hegemony with little resistance. However, the rise of China and other regional powers has caused the world to shift back to a fuzzy world order, often referred to as multipolar—it certainly is not.

This change compelled the United States to look beyond its hub and spoke security alliance system, which stretches from Japan all the way down to Australia, at its engagement efforts in the broader Indo-Pacific region to prevent countries from falling within China’s sphere of influence. Moreover, the United States has also spearheaded the creation of security pacts such as AUKUS and re-emphasised its attention towards institutions such as the QUAD to restrain China. On the other hand, China has also doubled down on its investment via the Belt and Road Initiative and its commitments towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation paradigm.

The revitalisation of the Russia-China-North Korea axis, coupled with the symbiotic relationship between China and North Korea with Pakistan and the evolving friendship between Russia and Pakistan, creates a formidable block of nuclear-armed states from the far East to the far West of Asia encompassing the Asian heartland. If Iran tomorrow joins this axis, given that it makes no secret of its desire to acquire nuclear weapons, this grouping can create a significant new strategic headache for India also, in addition to the strategic consequences for North and East Asia. Distant photos can, at times, have portentous reverberations.

Manish Tewari

Lawyer, MP, and former Union minister

(Views are personal)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express