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 in the Indo-Pacific region, potentially formalizing a union between countries that individually pose security threats to its allies, the U.S., China, and North Korea.

During a closed-door briefing on Monday, South Korean lawmakers were informed by the National Intelligence Service of South Korea that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu allegedly offered a show of alliance to North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un during his recent meeting with Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea. The media reported that this offer seems to be appropriate and that it was made during military joint drills between China, Russia, and North Korea.

North Korea could potentially gain significant advantages by collaborating with militaries that are relatively more advanced. However, considering that the Korean War concluded in the 1950s, it would be the first time for the reclusive nation to participate in such extensive military exercises. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether Kim will agree to Russia’s offer. China, on the other hand, has remained quiet regarding the proposal thus far.

The recent formalization of the trilateral defense alliance between South Korea, Japan, and the United States has certainly been motivated by the proposal, according to Senior Fellow Bernard Loo at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Loo specializes in defense and military policy.

Read More: The United States Is Strengthening Alliances Throughout Asia–But Don’t Anticipate an ‘Asian NATO’ in the Near Future.

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The ongoing nuclearization of North Korea, along with its rhetoric of warmongering and continuous missile testing, is a growing concern around the Korean peninsula. China, in partnership with its regional allies, is also exerting increasing military influence and maritime control, which has turned the Indo-Pacific region into a theater of several security flashpoints in recent decades.

Loo suggests that the trilateral naval drill is a convergence of states, mainly North Korea and Russia, which have a decreasing number of allies. Observers argue that this drill is not so much a military preparation for war, but rather a diplomatic gesture indicating a counter-alliance in the Indo-Pacific. They also believe that the potential risks to neighboring states would be minimal if North Korea were to participate in joint military exercises with China and Russia.

Despite the world seemingly being split into two factions with this possible counter-alliance, experts say that exercise of naval potential could actually have a stabilizing effect by creating a check on each party’s unilateral conflict instigation, moving closer towards the establishment of a formal united front against China, Russia, and North Korea by the U.S. And its allies.

Collin Koh, a senior fellow specializing in naval affairs in the Asia-Pacific region at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, suggests that there is a convergence of interests between North Korea and strategic partners due to the alignment on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. While North Korea’s continued threats to use its nuclear arsenal may not receive support, it is evident that China and Russia are partly aligned on this issue.

Read More: China Is Experimenting with the Extent of its Influence in the South China Sea Before Any Opposition Arises.

According to Koh, due to geographical limitations, it is unlikely that exercises simulating actual combat would take place in the near vicinity of the Korean peninsula, as it would not be feasible to properly simulate what would happen. Additionally, TIME reports that these drills would only serve a “utility” purpose and would only occur between nations during peacetime.

Experts agree that even if a new trilateral alliance were to be formed in the region, it is unlikely to increase the threat of a great power war, as long-standing principles of non-alignment have been followed by smaller states in the region, which could still have a significant impact.