Category Archives: China-Russia

China And Russia Fly Too Close For The Quad’s Comfort

A Russian TU-95 bomber and Chinese H-6 bombers fly over East China Sea in this handout picture taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan March 24, 2020.

CHINESE AND RUSSIAN nuclear bombers conducting a joint exercise over the Sea of Japan while in Tokyo the leaders of Japan, the United States, India and Australia are discussing regional security sends a particular message of togetherness on the part of Beijing and Moscow.

The aircraft (seen above in a Defence Ministry of Japan photograph) did not breach territorial airspace. However, Japan’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi said it was the fourth time since November that long-distance joint Russian and Chinese air force flights have passed near Japan. Such flights date back to at least 2019

Beijing has been ambivalent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the effusiveness of Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February over their relationship ‘without limits’. It adds another headwind to those buffeting China that Xi could do without.

Nonetheless, the invasion has connected the security situations at Asia’s eastern and western extremes. The meeting of the four leaders in Tokyo under the auspice of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’) was plain on that point. However, they were as explicit in saying the Quad is not an embryonic ‘Asian NATO’ as Beijing has been about claiming its relationship with Moscow is not an alliance.

Neither assertion cuts much ice with the other. Nor is there much getting around that an alternative international governance model for the region just sounds like another way of describing challenging China’s regional expansion.

The Quad has no formal institutions (unlike NATO). It has conducted joint naval exercises, but it is also looking to advance its soft power by promoting intra-regional cooperation in areas like ‘green’ transport, climate change and cybersecurity.

This modular approach to regional security aligns closely with the Biden administration’s preference for building coalitions of countries and institutions around specific mutual needs — and defining security extremely broadly — rather than traditional security alliances and trade agreements. The newly announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework fits that mould, too.

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Filed under China-Australia, China-India, China-Japan, China-Russia, China-U.S., Defence

China-Russia Trade Slows In March

THIS BYSTANDER ALWAYS cautions against drawing too-firm conclusions from one month’s economic data. Yet, preliminary March trade data released by China’s General Administration of Customs suggests that Chinese companies have been cautious about trading with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.

In March, China’s exports to Russia at $3.8 billion fell 7.7% year-on-year, their lowest level since May 2020, when global trade was tanked by Covid-19.

At $7.8 billion, imports from Russia rose 26.4% year-on-year, but rising commodity prices would have inflated the value of the underlying volumes. Even then, the dollar figure was below the record $8.3 billion recorded last December.

China mainly buys energy and agricultural commodities from Russia and sells it machinery, vehicles and electronic equipment. Product category breakdowns are not available with the preliminary data. We shall have to wait until later in the month for that detail.

In February, at their meeting during the Beijing Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to boost annual bilateral trade to $250 billion. In 2021, it was worth $147 billion.

Xi has been put in something of a quandary by his friend’s war in Ukraine, although China’s self-interest was always going to determine its economic support, overt or otherwise.

This and concern about possible risks of Western sanctions may have made Chinese firms proceed warily following the invasion of Ukraine. However, other factors could have contributed to March’s bilateral trade slowdown, most notably the Omicron surge disrupting supply chains.

April’s data may bring more clarity.

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The Longer The Ukraine Crisis, The More Of A Non-Player China Becomes

PRESIDENT XI JINPING can be taken at face value when he told his US counterpart Joe Biden in Friday’s two-hour video call that China does not want war in Ukraine.

His friend, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, giving the West a quick and bloody nose in Ukraine would have been one thing. Xi could have cheered on from the side but be otherwise uninvolved. His view of the West’s secular decline and democracies’ failings would have been further confirmed.

However, events have turned out badly for China, and become worse the longer they drag on. The West’s response to Russia’s invasion has been forceful and unified. An anticipated lightening military victory has become a siege war of attrition. Soaring energy, metals and food prices and renewed disruption to supply chains have stiffened the economic headwinds buffeting China.

Most of all, China is caught uncomfortably in the middle diplomatically. Xi cannot (and will not) abandon his friend, yet, nor can he side with the West over the conflict.

China has had to perform diplomatic gymnastics to preserve its principles of indivisible sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, both violated by Russia’s invasion. Calls for resolving the conflict by diplomatic means sound rote, and Beijing’s lack of experience and possibly capacity to broker peace have been exposed.

Economically, future trade with Europe and the United States, already more than five times larger than that with Russia, is in the balance. Maintaining economic relations with the West while opposing US ‘hegemony’ has been a tightrope Beijing has chosen to walk. Yet, as Biden made clear to Xi in their call, getting knocked off by the imposition of yet more Western economic sanctions for aiding Moscow is a growing risk. China will be particularly reticent to help Moscow circumvent financial sanctions, as those are where it and Chinese firms will be most vulnerable.

Beijing also needs Russia’s implicit security guarantees in Central Asia for the Belt and Road. These will be coloured by the outcome of Ukraine, which limits China’s opportunities now to exploit Russian weakness to secure cheap energy and commodities.

China has never joined Russia in any military intervention abroad and is unlikely to start now, even if it supplies materials for the Russian army’s use. War in Ukraine is not a core interest, and its leadership displays caution on matters not related to its core interests. In such circumstances, it prioritises creating a stable international environment conducive to China’s economic development.

It does not look as if Beijing knows how to do that, beyond repeating calls for a negotiated settlement. A telltale sign was the readouts of the Xi-Biden call: whereas the United States portrayed Ukraine as the focus of the call, China’s portrayed US-China relations as the main topic.

Yet taking a formal lead in mediating a peace in Ukraine would underline how Beijing’s relationship with Moscow was more one of convenience and a shared adversary rather than the ‘no limits’ alliance portrayed. It could also be taken domestically as yielding to Western pressure.

Further, failure of such talks would be a diplomatic embarrassment that could rebound internally with uncertain effects, given the imminence of the Party Congress in the autumn.

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US Reminds China It Is Still Taking Care Of Business

JUST BEFORE FORMER US President Donald Trump left office, he signed into law the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (HFCAA), which allows the delisting of any foreign — for which read Chinese — company publicly traded in the United States that does not let US regulators inspect its finances to the same extent required of US companies.

US-listed Chinese companies must disclose their non-US operations’ audits, which Chinese regulations prohibit auditors from sharing.

The law also targets alleged Chinese government control of such companies and was part of Trump’s broader strategy to limit Chinese companies’ access to US capital and technology.

On March 8, HFCAA was used for the first time. The US Securities and Exchange Commission provisionally listed five Chinese companies that it said were not in compliance — biotech firms BeiGene and Zai Lab, Yum China, which runs KFC and Pizza Hut fast food outlets, ACM Research, a semiconductor process equipment manufacturer, and pharma firm HutchMed China.

As the accounting scandal involving Luckin Coffee in 2020 showed, there are legitimate investor reasons for HFCAA, and its wheels turn exceedingly slowly. Delisting will not necessarily follow. The firms have opportunities to come into compliance. Even if they do not, 2024 is the earliest delisting would occur.

So the timing may be coincidental, but this Bystander doubts it.

Concern about Russia using China to end-run Western sanctions over Ukraine is growing within the Biden administration. The SEC’s announcement follows warnings by US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that the US could ‘essentially shut down’ any Chinese companies that defy US sanctions by continuing to supply chips and other advanced technology to Russia.

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, a chipmaker Raimondo mentioned, could become a new Huawei.

Delisting the five companies named would not necessarily impact US efforts to isolate Russia technologically. and certainly not in time to disrupt wartime supply lines.

However, the threat adds to the signals to China and its companies to tread carefully when it comes to US sanctions (and Chinese firms will be careful not to put their exports to the US and EU at risk by overtly violating them), or exploiting the situation created by the war in Ukraine.

This week, Bloomberg reported that some of China’s state-owned energy and commodities giants, including China National Petroleum Corp, China Petrochemical Corp, Aluminum Corp of China and China Minmetals Corp, are considering the opportunities for investment in Russian counterparts such as Gazprom and Rusal.

As well as providing economic support to a strategic partner, any deals would bolster Beijing’s efforts to improve its energy and food security. China is already the leading market for Russia’s exports, taking 13.5% of the total. That will only grow as Western sanctions that China has no intention of honouring bite on Russia.

Trade deals announced shortly before the invasion of Ukraine when Russian President Vladimir Putin was in China for the Beijing Winter Olympics last month now seem even more like a prelude to the future.

That future will be about trade deals in which Russian commodities fulfil China’s needs for energy and food, and China meets Russia’s needs for technology and advanced manufactures containing it like aircraft.

Update: Reuters news agency reports that discussions between Washington and Beijing on resolving the audit issue are progressing ‘relatively smoothly‘, although it sounds as if there is still a fair way to go to bridge the gap between the two sides.

Footnote: Around 250 Chinese companies listed on US exchanges could fall foul of HFCAA, according to another little-known Trump-era agency, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which advises on the US national security implications of China’s bilateral economic activities. A steady addition of small batches to the SEC’s provisional list would accelerate the relocation of listings from the United States to Hong Kong.

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China Will Help Russia Economically But On Its Own Terms

Wheat infected by dwarf bunt virus. Photo credit: Peggy Greb, USDA Agricultural Research Service, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

THE TIMING OF the announcement by China’s customs authorities that they would approve all Russian wheat and barley imports — just hours after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — seems barely coincidental.

It also underlines how China is acting in its national interest as much as supporting its neighbour.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed to the end of the import ban when the latter attended the Beijing Winter Olympic Games earlier this month.

State media is suggesting that shows there is no connection between lifting the import ban and the invasion of Ukraine. However, that line raises more questions than it answers about how much Xi and Putin discussed Russia’s plans in advance.

Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, with around an 18% global market share. It has been excluded from the Chinese market because of concerns about introducing dwarf bunt fungus (seen in the photograph above) — a disease that can stunt wheat and other crops, reducing yields by up to three-quarters.

China often cites phytosanitary reasons to justify non-tariff barriers to trade, but the fungus is a serious threat; hitherto, China had zero tolerance for dwarf bunt spores in imported grain. Putin agreed that Russia would suspend wheat shipments to China if the contaminants were found.

For Russia, the agreement offered the reassurance of a secure buyer to mitigate possible Western sanctions. For China, it will mean a supply of cheap wheat to offset the looming shortages caused by flooding that disrupted last year’s sowing season across one-third of the country’s wheat acreage. Food security is a priority concern for Xi.

With 1.4 billion mouths to feed and rising use of wheat for animal feed, China is already the world’s largest wheat market, accounting for shy of one-fifth of the world’s consumption. It has somewhat opaque import quotas established when it first joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 that were intended to open up the market. Imports are running at well below allowable volumes. There is headroom to expand imports from Russia.

Some reports suggest that this new trade will be settled in yuan, not the dollars customary in commodities trading. That will be easier as some of the imported wheat will come from Chinese-owned farms in Russia’s Far East that up until now could only sell their produce in the domestic Russian market.

The two countries’ central banks agreed a three-year $24 billion currency swap in 2014 to facilitate trade financing in yuan. This has been renewed twice since. One effect has been to reduce the dollar’s share of financing of Russia’s exports to China from almost all of it in 2013 to around 40%.

In January, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom signed a 30-year contract to supply natural gas to China’s northeast from the Russian Far East. This will be priced in euros to avoid using dollars. Beijing insisted on favourable terms given Moscow’s desire to diversify its export markets for its energy since the sanctions imposed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which also produced a cut-price supply contract.

Russia has been building up its reserves of euros and yuan at the expense of the dollar since the imposition of the sanctions for annexing Crimea. Since 2017, the yuan’s share of Russia’s foreign-currency reserves has risen to 13% from 3% and the euro’s share to 32% from 22%, while the dollar’s share has fallen to 16% in 2021 from 46% in 2017.

The two countries’ central banks agreed a three-year $24 billion currency swap in 2014 to facilitate trade financing in yuan. This has been renewed twice since. One effect has been to reduce the dollar’s share of financing of Russia’s exports to China to around 40%, against almost all of it in 2013.

When they met earlier this month, Xi and Putin said they aimed to raise their countries’ bilateral trade to $250 billion from $140 billion last year. China will dictate the terms with a hard head more than a friendly heart.

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Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Leaves China In A Quandry

CHINA DID NOT want a Russian invasion of Ukraine and, ahead of Russia sending in troops, had distanced itself slightly from Moscow despite the agreement between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during the Beijing Winter Olympics reaffirming their ‘no limits’ partnership.

A shared antipathy to US foreign policies is one thing; going to war as allies is another. Historically, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow has blown hot and cold. Partly, that is because there has rarely been the parity of power that is one of the prerequisites for a strong security alliance. Today, China is far the stronger of the two. Nor is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ the true confluence of interests that is another prerequisite.

Beijing has not followed Moscow in recognising the Russian-backed separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. (It was not happy when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.) It will be keen to avoid the diplomatic gymnastics necessary to avoid violating its oft-repeated principle that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs.

However, it will now face having to make realpolitik choices.

It is unlikely to endorse the invasion formally but equally unlikely to condemn it. Nor will it join international sanctions against Russia, arguing that sanctions are ineffective. In doing so, it is taking a swipe at US sanctions against China more than advancing an argument on first principles (not that that argument is not without foundation).

Moscow will undoubtedly look to Beijing for economic support to provide sanctions relief. That will mostly come from increased Chinese purchases of Russian gas, as already agreed via Gazprom’s newly signed second gas supply contract.

Beyond that, China will offer little more than rhetorical support. In November, the two countries signed a three-year military cooperation agreement for joint military exercises and patrols. However, the primary purpose is political, and military inter-operability is limited.

Of several joint exercises undertaken in 2021, most served to bolster Beijing’s display of force towards Japan and South Korea, neither country being a particular focus of Russian foreign policy concern. Tellingly, China did not reciprocate by participating in Russian exercises on its European borders.

If Putin thought he could expect China’s full-hearted support for an invasion of Ukraine, he misread Xi badly. China has distanced itself from the invasion, with officials stressing that Russia ‘is an independent major country, and it decides its policy and actions independently according to its own strategic judgment and interests’.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly made China’s usual milquetoast calls for restraint on all sides and for the situation to be resolved through dialogue. Yet his spokesperson — Hua Chunying, making an unexpected return to the podium to conduct the ministry’s routine press conference on February 23 despite her recent promotion of assistant minister — was typically pugnacious towards the United States:

A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral.

She struck the same note the following day, following the start of the Russian military action. State media and social media, too, reinforce the narrative that the United States is responsible for the tensions in Ukraine. They are also dampening any discussion about Russia protecting or reincorporating minorities that could raise awkward questions inside China about the situations of many of its population.

Beijing will also be warry of nationalist voices that say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides a template for invading Taiwan. However, it will be calibrating the West’s response to Putin’s moves into Ukraine as a guide to how far it can continue to push against Taipei without getting significant international pushback.

Further complicating China’s position over Ukraine is its trade and investment interests along the Belt and Road, particularly in the former Soviet states of Central Asia. While it accepts Moscow’s security dominance there, it has sought to deploy its commercial power to establish its influence.

Ukraine is a way station along the Belt and Road’s routes to Europe. Last year, China signed an investment agreement with Ukraine, which it also hopes will become a source of food imports. China is already Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

War in Ukraine will set back Beijing’s efforts to drive a wedge between the EU and the United States over their strategic responses to China.
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Russia And China Stand Close But Not Fully Shoulder To Shoulder

President Vladimir Putin of Russia (left) seen with President Xi Jinping of China at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on February 4, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ding Haitao

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN of Russia is the first world leader that President Xi Jinping has met in person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That in itself speaks to the growing closeness of the relationship between the two countries. The meeting of their leaders in Beijing ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics on February 4 — their 38th since Xi became China’s leader in 2012-13 — only served to underline that.

A joint statement touched on common talking points:

  • a call on the West to abandon ‘the ideologised approaches of the cold war’ and on Nato to rule out expansion in eastern Europe;
  • a denouncement of security blocs in the Asia-Pacific region, notably the trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (Aukus); and
  • a pledge to step up cooperation to thwart colour revolutions and external interference and deepen their ‘back-to-back’ strategic coordination.

Putin voiced his support for the reunification of Taiwan, but there was no specific mention of Ukraine in the statement. There will inevitably be comparisons drawn between the two, although these only go so far. Xi will be wary, too, of pushing the parallels. He wants neither to drive Europe deeper into Washington’s camp nor to upset China’s economic interests in Ukraine, a country with which Beijing still has diplomatic relations.

War would impose costs on Beijing. Its cooperation with Moscow would not extend to committing PLA forces, although a small humanitarian mission would be possible.

However, an invasion of Ukraine would likely bring severe US sanctions against Russia. Beijing would then be pressed to offer economic support such as providing alternative payment systems, loans for Russian banks and firms, more purchases of Russian oil or even outright sanctions-busting. It would prefer not to get drawn in to any of that except on its own terms and timetable.

China and Russia stand close but not yet fully shoulder to shoulder. Xi sees trade and investment as the backbone of the relationship even if security and geopolitical cooperation remains important. He told Putin during their meeting that China intends to increase the annual level of bilateral trade to $250 billion. It is around $140 billion a year now. China is happy to buy more Russian gas.

In that context, China has advanced a nuanced narrative, aimed at non-Western countries, of the Ukraine crisis as yet another example of Washington and Western democracy’s ‘failure’ and the West’s bullying and refusal to respect the sovereign right of other countries.

In the same vein, Xi and Putin also portrayed their countries as the defenders of multilateralism and democracy and upholders of international equity and justice. That is undoubtedly overegging the pudding but fits a long-term strategy — and common interest — to undermine the West’s soft power.

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China Reimposes Wuhan-like Lockdown In North-East

The main railway station at Jilin, seen in 2011. Photo credit: 阳之下光. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

JILIN IS REVERSING the lifting of lockdown restrictions amid a flare-up of new Covid-19 cases in the north-eastern province that shares borders with North Korea and Russia.

In Jilin city, the province’s second-largest city with a population of 4.5 million, transport was shut down again Wuhan-like from 6 am on Wednesday. (The photo above is an archive one of Jilin railway station.) City residents may only leave if they can show they have tested negative for Covid-19 within 48-hours of intended travel, and it is not clear that they can get back. Schools have reclosed and several residential compounds have been quarantined. Authorities have also closed places of entertainment and tourist spots and banned group dining.

Nearby Shulan, where there is also a cluster of new cases, was closed off on Sunday. Contact tracing has established connections between the two outbreaks.

Both places are some 150 kilometres north of the nearest border with North Korea. However, the main road from the provincial capital Changchun to the point where the Chinese, North Korean and Russian borders meet runs through Jilin, which also has road connections north through Shulan to Harbin in neighbouring Heilongjiang province, a hub for Chinese-Russian commerce, and which had reported 386 cases of imported infection as of Monday. Travellers arriving in Harbin from along that road now face 28 days of mandatory quarantine.

Inevitably a new cluster of cases has heightened fears of a spillover of infection from either neighbouring country. The epidemic continues to grow in Russia, which now has approaching one-quarter of a million confirmed cases. Heilongjiang is imposing 35 days of quarantine on travellers from Russia.

North Korea has yet to confirm any Covid-19 infections. However, the suspicion is widespread that there are cases, reinforced by the recent exchange of messages about the virus between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Xi Jinping. North Korea’s economy relies on illicit trade back and forth across the Yalu and Tumen rivers that separate it from China, providing a difficult to detect corridor of disease transmission.

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China Reaffirms Its Arctic Ambition

Drift ice in the Arctic Ocean seen from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, 2010. Photo credit: Timo Palo. Licenced under Creative Commons

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED China’s Arctic ambition as long ago as 2010. Since then global warming has made northern shipping routes from Asia to Europe through the Arctic only more feasible as summer sea ice has further diminished.

In 2013, China acquired observer status at the Arctic Council, which comprises nations with an Arctic littoral (full members) or an interest in the region (observers). The previous year, the Ukraine-built diesel-powered Xue Long (Snow Dragon; seen above in 2010) then the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, had made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north.

It has been participating in Arctic research trips since 1999; China has had a research station on the Spitzbergen Archipelago since 2004. A larger and stronger indigenously designed version, the Xue Long 2, is due to come into service next year. It will be a hybrid research vessel-ice breaker that can carry up to 90 scientists and crew. Nuclear-powered icebreakers will follow. Development contracts were signed between the National Nuclear Corporation and State Shipbuilding Corporation in 2016.

Not only would a northern route through the Arctic lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, it would also make drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.

On Friday, the State Council Information Office, the government information office directed towards foreign audiences, released an English-language white paper, China’s Arctic Policy, that sets out Beijing’s intentions towards the development (and conservation) of Arctic resources over the coming decades, in particular, shipping routes.

It manages to slip in the presumably intentionally eye-catching phrase, Polar Silk Road, there times but the document is mainly an affirmation of the long-standing position that China sees itself as having interests in the Arctic and intends to be active in the region’s economic development and governance.

Chinese mariners, fishermen, scientists, petroleum engineers and even tourists plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever more significant number, will concern Russia, for one. The United States will see yet more evidence of China’s asserting itself globally, notably when the white paper says responsibility for the region now goes beyond the eight nations, including Russia and the United States, with territorial sovereignty in the Arctic.

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North Korea: Trade, Opportunity And Russia

Rajin Port, North Korea, 2011. Photo credit: Laika ac. Licenced under Creative Commons.

EVEN WITH UN trade sanctions against North Korea in place, China’s trade with North Korea rose 15% in the first five months of this year to just over $2 billion, according to customs data.

China is certainly buying less from North Korea, principally because it suspended coal purchases in February in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in defiance of UN demands. However, it is still importing iron ore.

In the other direction, more Chinese oil (up 18% year-on-year) and goods, notably telephone equipment, textiles, soybean oil and vehicles, are flowing into North Korea.

The first-quarter data, which show a 37.4% rise in total trade, has drawn the predictable irascible tweet from US President Donald Trump, whose administration is showing signs of increasing frustration with Beijing’s attempts to be cooperative in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

The debate is intensifying in Washington over how honest an ‘honest broker’ Beijing is over North Korea. Is it, too, as frustrated with Pyongyang as its public statements suggest? Or is it less than neutral, still supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime to greater or lesser extent.

The darker conspiracists in Washington believe Beijing is ‘running’ North Korea with the end of keeping the peninsula on the brink of instability to keep US regional allies diverted from China issues while making China, as North Korea’s only ally and main aid donor, the essential partner in any brokered solution that never comes.

This Bystander thinks that a conspiracy theory too far, not least because subcontracting the maintenance of managed instability to the agency of the Kim dynasty seems such a high risk.

More likely, to our mind, China is protecting its red-line position. Beijing does not want the Pyongyang regime to collapse for fear of the outcome being a US-aligned unified Korea on its border, over which an influx of North Korean refugees, possibly starving, will already have poured.

Thus it will lean on Kim, but not heavily enough to topple him. This leaves the United States squeezed between taking direct action — which is everyone’s last resort, though one that Trump may resort to more readily than others — and imposing further sanctions, most likely next targeted at more banks and companies, including Chinese companies, thought to be financing North Korean trade, especially illicit trade.

Remittances by North Koreans working abroad are another potential target. A UN report in 2015 estimated that there were more than 50,000 North Koreans working abroad in mining, logging, textile and construction industries around the world, generating  $2.3 billion a year for the regime.

Which is one of the points where Russia enters the picture. Along with China, Russia is the main employer of North Korean workers. Thirty thousand North Koreans are estimated to work there.

Earlier this month, the Russian ambassador to the UN rejected the United States’ call for new sanctions against North Korea following its latest missile test. Instead, though it supported previous UN sanctions, it repeated China’s calls for restraint on all sides, similarly worried about the risk of instability that could be triggered by a strict sanctions regime.

Washington views the Russian position on North Korea, which is suspects to be opportunistic, sceptically, and as a sanctions busting. Last month, it imposed sanctions on two Russian companies, one for allegedly supplying a North Korean firm involved in the nuclear programme, the other for shipping petroleum products to North Korea.

Russia’s trade with North Korea is minimal: total trade last year was worth $77 million. That is a deceptive figure because much of the trade goes via China. Up to $500 million would be more realistic.

Still relatively tiny (and nothing compared to what it was in Soviet days). However, it jumped in the first quarter of this year, by 85% year-on-year, according to Russia’s customs service. The bulk of this consisted of Russian exports of coal ($26.7 million-worth) and oil ($1.2 million-worth).

Often forgotten, there is a railway that runs from the Russian side of the short Russia-North Korea border across the Tumen river to Rajin (seen above in a 2011 photograph), a North Korean port from which Siberian coal is shipped. New port facilities had been built in a joint venture with the South Koreans until they pulled out last year.

Sanctions-busting fuel deliveries to compensate for those lost from China also get through to North Korea clandestinely via this route. North Korean coal reportedly goes in the opposite direction. The line has four rails to accommodate both Russian and Korean gauge rolling stock.

However, the recent spike in Russian exports goes against the trend of falling exports over the previous three years, a trend mirrored by China, as it happens.

Last week, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin said the two countries would co-operate to defuse the North Korean crisis. Russia will not undercut Beijing’s leadership on the issue, but it is steadily inserting itself into the equation and is likely to be opportunistic, adding a further layer of complexity and uncertainty to an already seemingly intractable situation.

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