Recent PRC and Russian military exercises suggest both preparation for and a policy stance towards the Korean crisis.
Sino-Russian exercises this week held outside of Vladivostok and the Sea of Okhotsk included anti-submarine drills with 11 surface ships, 2 submarines, ASW aircraft and helicopters. Drills held September 5 involved a “surprise attack” with multiple missiles being shot down in Bohai Gulf.
The exercise was described as “boosting the forces expulsion mission capability”. This follows another large scale exercise in August in the same area.
Anti-submarine and anti-missile exercises by PRC and Russia are tailored to prepare for preventing a repeat of the cruise missile strike on Syria during the Trump-Xi summit with the added twist that it be launched from US submarines on either side of the Korean peninsula. It can hardly be aimed at the DPRK submarine fleet.
It is clear that PRC (and possibly Russia) intend to enforce their policy to come to the aid of DPRK “if the US attacked”.
For the PRC, this is also supported with a formal mutual defense treaty that require China to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal”. Although PRC’s commitment to treaty obligations, like UNCLOS, however, is open to question.
What is known and demonstrated repeatedly recently is PRC and Russia’s insistence on “peaceful settlement”, which expressly supports the continued expansion of DPRK WMD capabilities beyond the point of no return where they will be too dangerous to be stopped without all out nuclear war.
Russia and PRC’s support of DPRK’s goals is explicit in their opposition to a US led military solution.
No matter what they do at the UN to “support” the US, it is clear that neither party are neutral and both are well on the way to becoming belligerents on DPRK’s side.
PRC and Russia have extensive radar and other sensors monitoring the approaches to DPRK on either side of the peninsula on land, air and sea. Space based surveillance assets are in turn supplemented by commercial satellite imagery that are readily available.
Formal assets are in turn, backed up by a well-organized maritime militia, spy network and open source intelligence that will give early warning of any major or irregular activities at allied airfields, military bases and ports.
These ISR networks communicating via commercial channels and will be able to work with Pyongyang in real time, including activating pre-positioned agents and forces outside of DPRK.
Thus, OPSEC is going to be a major problem for allied forces.
Early warning will facilitate the axis forces deploying and other assistance to support DPRK: making surprise difficult to achieve.
PRC have been actively preparing for preemptive S/MRBM and cruise missile strikes on US and allied bases with both conventional and almost certainly nuclear weapons. PRC has a veto backed by military force on US action against DPRK.
The question is, will they use it when such overt moves will have major consequences?
Intervention by PRC and Russia this time, however, are tempered by two major factors. Russia is not USSR that have limited economic ties with the west. Russia relies on western markets and additional sanctions would pinch the Putin regime further.
PRC, on the other hand, is in a bind.
As a member of the UNSC, PRC cannot undo the UN resolution 82 and 84 which remains in effect after it was passed by ROC with USSR absent. Furthermore, Russia and PRC’s recent string of votes in favor of sanctions on DPRK affirmed the past resolutions validity which PRC would violate if they entered the war with DPRK.
The deep and broad economic links of PRC to the world economy is another problem.
Formal entry into the Korean war will immediately impair these relationships, likely leading to a World War style full embargo including US and Allies locking belligerents out of the western financial system and seizure of their assets abroad.
The economic consequences will be to almost certainly plunge the PRC economy into severe recession — with its debt load exceeding 300% GDP.
Thus, in as much as PRC and Russia both used military exercises to bluff, actually crossing the line of initiating hostilities will require deliberation.
It is potentially severely destabilizing domestically. Thus, cold war style massive intervention that include movements of troops, material, and PRC/USSR military operations similar to Korean War I, or the Vietnam war is unlikely at the first instance.
During the Korean war, support came from USSR and PRC via detectable movements of troops, equipment, and trainloads of supplies. Aircraft, experienced and highly trained pilots, and equipment that can have no other source beside USSR or PRC are traceable.
Notably, the PVA forces had excellent OPSEC and did not reveal themselves until October, 1950. This longstanding strength of CCP should not be underestimated.
Once can expect a repeat of this scenario where substantial technical and material aid will come from PRC via difficult to trace in real time channels.
Covert, or at least, plausibly deniable intervention by PRC (whether Beijing-China or other elements) and Russia in support of DPRK is a foregone conclusion regardless of any pledges by Beijing-China to “stay neutral” if DPRK attacked US.
It is almost certain that the PRC and Russia will disguise any physical movements of material as “humanitarian” aid ostensibly to prevent DPRK refugees from flooding across the border.
The lame excuse that PRC is afraid of influxes of refugees has, to date, not been challenged by the US and allies even as PRC deployed troops on the border in anticipation of occupying DPRK to prevent a US victory.
The most probable aid will come in the form of ISR on behalf of DPRK conducted by PRC/Russian systems to aid their defenses. This will, in turn, be supplemented by EW and interference with allied systems by means ranging from jamming to cyberwarfare against both military and civilian networks.
In other words, the US and allies should be expecting to encounter an enemy with state-of-the-art capabilities — not a poverty stricken and backward military machine.
Other aid like provision of hardened and secured facilities across the border for DPRK C2 is to be expected. From there, could “people’s volunteers” be far behind?
The question that such intervention by axis allies of DPRK raises is central to the Anglo-European world’s relationship with the PRC and Russia:
Can we continue an economic relationship with them and turn a blind eye to great power and ideological conflict when it overflows into a proxy war against an offensive minded nuclear state?
That is the problem of the 21st century that must be resolved.