Russia-North Korea pact dooms US hopes of Indo-Pacific dominance

Asia World
Former defence minister Sergei Shoigu proposed during a visit to Pyongyang that they hold joint naval drills with China. This desire is endowed in the converging interests to convey to the US and its allies that they can also achieve the same level of cooperation as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in the Indo-Pacific region and cause major disruption.
Last year, China and Russia held joint drills called Northern/Interaction-2023, in which the two countries actively patrolled and conducted exercises in the South and the East China Seas and the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. In January, Russia conducted anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea, during which it detected and neutralised a mock enemy submarine.

Russia is slowly increasing its presence in the east as it has been modernising its fleet with the commissioning of eight new warships, four nuclear-powered submarines and conventional submarines, all between 2022 and October 2023. During this same period, Russia’s Pacific Fleet staged eight strategic-level naval exercises.

03:05

Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

In the event of a conflict between the US and China, North Korea’s pact with Beijing could place US bases in Japan and South Korea directly in the cross hairs. This potential flashpoint, coupled with the prospect of US and allied retaliation against North Korea, could compel Russia to honour its own agreements with Pyongyang, setting the stage for a perilous escalation.
The human toll in South Korea alone could be catastrophic. A 2016 South Korean defence white paper estimated that the US would need to deploy 690,000 troops to South Korea. These numbers dwarf the levels of peak US troop deployments in Afghanistan (98,000) and Iraq (170,000). Expected casualties in the event of a North Korean attack are also estimated in South Korea to be 100,000 within 48 hours if greater Seoul is targeted and 200,000-300,000 South Korean and US casualties within the first 90 days.

This does not consider the casualties US forces and American allies could incur in the South China Sea, which would likely see the bulk of the action. Such developments would necessitate a multilayered response, enhancing coordination and intelligence sharing among China, Russia and North Korea and further complicating the regional landscape for US operations.

This expanded theatre of conflict, encompassing a potential combat theatre of 3.69 million sq km in the South China Sea in addition to 978,000 sq km in the Sea of Japan, would likely strain US and allied resources.

North Korea’s naval force currently consists of small, high-speed vessels, and its ability to conduct deep-sea operations is limited. However, a shift in policy by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could see the country’s navy play a major role in the country’s nuclear deterrence. This includes the addition of underwater drones, warships and its first operational missile submarine.
Although China now has the world’s largest naval fleet, its lack of battlefield experience inhibits its operational readiness. Russia’s extensive naval experience, particularly from its Soviet era, could prove indispensable to both countries and underpin their ability to engage against any manoeuvres by the US-led coalition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made his views apparent in an article in the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun. He accused the US of imposing its rules-based order and promoting double standards when other countries pursue an independent policy and hence face external pressure.

02:01

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

Washington’s reliance on groupings such as the Quad and Aukus could be counterproductive. By sidelining diplomacy, the US has driven Russia, China and North Korea into a tighter, more formidable alliance. This strategy appears to have backfired, creating a multi-front challenge that could strain US resources and destabilise the Indo-Pacific.

While the US and its allies try to maintain the status quo, their adversaries are united in their ambition to forge a multipolar world. US policies meant to isolate its rivals have instead consolidated them into a bloc that Washington might be ill-equipped to handle.

These new alliances against the US-led world order are more united in their ambition to create a multipolar world and resist US dominance than the US and its allies are in maintaining the status quo. It is time for the US to rethink its approach and embrace diplomacy through mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

Otherwise, it will be forced to choose between saving Europe, maintaining its influence in the Middle East and engaging with the vastness of the Indo-Pacific region. Here it faces a technologically advanced emerging superpower in China, a historical adversary in Russia and North Korea, a regime whose depth and capability the world does not need to discover.

Sameed Basha is a defence and political analyst with a master’s degree in international relations from Deakin University, Australia