washington - China, watching this week's historic Russia-North Korea summit from the sidelines, is likely to welcome a boost for President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine but worry that its longtime client state in Pyongyang could be slipping from its grasp, experts say.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's green bulletproof train headed to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a city in Russia's far Khabarovsk region, on Thursday after his rare summit with Putin a day earlier, according to Yonhap News in Seoul.
In Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Kim is expected to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and visit a manufacturing facility that produces Sukhoi fighter jets. From there, he will head toward Vladivostok to inspect Russia's Pacific fleet before returning to Pyongyang.
China and Russia, autocratic socialist states, have supported each other for decades. The two have become closer than ever as they seek to counter the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. But experts say the shift by North Korea, their junior partner and socialist neighbor, toward Moscow may make Beijing feel as if Kim has found a new suitor.
Kim's summit with Putin on Wednesday at the Vostochny spaceport in Russia's far eastern Amur region reset Pyongyang's strategic ties with Moscow based on their common military needs and goals, experts said.
Putin needs artillery shells and ammunition to sustain his war in Ukraine. Kim needs technological help to send a spy satellite into orbit after failed attempts in May and August.
Their converging needs brought them together for the first time since April 2019.
'That's why we came here'
Although specifics about this week's summit were not announced in public, both Kim and Putin seem to have suggested they would meet each other's needs in defiance of international sanctions and concerns.
'The relationship between Russia and North Korea that's moving forward now is in violation of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions,' said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a podcast on Wednesday. 'We don't want to see Russia be in a position where it can strengthen the capabilities it's bringing to dealing with the aggression on Ukraine, and we also don't want to see North Korea benefiting from whatever technologies it might get from Russia.'
Before their meeting, Putin gave Kim a tour of the spaceport and suggested he would provide satellite technology that Kim has been trying to hone. 'That's why we came here,' he said.
Prior to their closed-door, one-on-one meeting, Kim said Pyongyang would stand with Moscow in its 'just fight against hegemonic forces' and pledged to provide 'full and unconditional support for all measures' taken by Russia in its war in Ukraine.
Kim also said Pyongyang's relationship with Moscow was its 'top priority.'
Putin said before the one-on-one meeting that he planned to discuss with Kim issues including the economy, humanitarian aid and the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
At a reception following their talks, Putin accepted Kim's offer to visit Pyongyang, according to North Korea's state media KCNA.
As North Korea's primary aid provider and top trading partner, China has for years held considerable leverage over Pyongyang. But now, experts say, Beijing might feel anxious that Pyongyang is leaning too much toward Moscow and starting to slip from its influence.
Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said China probably feels ambivalent about the arms deals.
'On one hand, Beijing wants Putin to survive the Ukraine war, so it probably welcomes North Korean military aid to Russia,' Samore said. 'On the other hand, Beijing may be nervous that Russian transfer of advanced military technology to North Korea could increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula and strengthen the U.S.-[South Korea]-Japan alliance.'
South Korea, Japan, US reflect on pledge
In August, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to bolster their defenses against North Korea at their summit at Camp David. They agreed to hold regular multidomain trilateral exercises and share live ballistic missile defense warning data.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Thursday about the Putin-Kim meeting and stressed the importance of their commitment to consult against common threats - a pledge made at Camp David - and to cooperate in their efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Experts said China is reluctant to match Russia in providing advanced weapons technologies to North Korea, at least explicitly. They said Beijing does not want to taint its international image by aiding a pariah state, risk further straining its relations with the U.S., and be on the road to become isolated like Russia.
China increasingly wants to be 'a world power' and is thinking 'globally, not just regionally,' said Ken Gause, director of special projects for the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program at research group CNA and an expert on North Korean leadership.
'They can't go overboard in terms of the defense stuff in Northeast Asia because it can have negative effects on what they're doing in the world,' including Beijing's global Belt and Road Initiative, Gause said.
Gause said Beijing is likely to use its economic leverage over Russia to discourage Moscow from jeopardizing the security of Northeast Asia by giving Pyongyang 'all kinds of sensitive technology.'
He said what North Korea gets from Russia will indicate Moscow's stance toward Beijing. If Pyongyang gets advanced military technology such as submarine technology, it shows that 'Russia is extremely desperate' and 'Russia doesn't care about what the Chinese say.'
Economic cooperation with China
Russia has become economically dependent on China since its invasion of Ukraine, which triggered multiple sanctions by the U.S. and its allies and partners.
Putin said at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Tuesday that Moscow's economic cooperation with Beijing had 'reached a very high level,' according to Russian state-run TASS news agency.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is planning to visit Moscow on Monday to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Wednesday, according to Interfax news based in Moscow.
Despite differences that might exist among the three autocratic states, Zack Cooper, former deputy national security adviser at the National Security Council and current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said it would be difficult to drive 'a serious wedge' into Beijing-Moscow-Pyongyang relations as they 'increasingly' move in the direction of opposing the U.S. and its key allies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday that 'China and Russia have been in close communication on bilateral ties and international and regional issues.'