Courtesy of Bing
Russia and/or China Make a Move – or Don’t
In the first part of this piece, I argued that there was a better than even chance why Russian and China might make serious strategic moves with international repercussions in their near-abroads in the next year or so. I also argued that there were important reasons why they might not. First, the reasons for the affirmative view.
There are essentially three factors that militate in the direction of a coordinated or uncoordinated, but more or less simultaneous or subsequent, moves by Russia and China in their near abroads.
Despite Russia’s foreign policy prowess and China’s much vaunted progress towards becoming the world’s strongest economy, both countries are structurally crippled. Russia has failing growth rates, and notwithstanding Putin’s calls for a new technological paradigm, the country faces an objective need to modernize its economic system that cannot be carried out under its existing political circumstances. This is a fundamental flaw that predates Western sanctions.
The Chinese political system finds itself in not dissimilar straits. Seventy years old this year, and with decreasing economic and population growth, its profile recalls the USSR of the zastoy, the economic stagnation that afflicted the Soviet Union as of the late 1970s at a similar political age. This kind of economic dysfunctionality, helped by the USSR’s Afghanistan debacle and the much-hyped American STAR WARS programme, conspired to make the Soviet system fail.
Going forward, these two dictatorships have limited options.
The main one is for the two countries to continue to attempt to compensate for their internal contradictions through foreign policy adventurism.
With Trump in the White House, Russia and China could be forgiven for thinking that they might safely assume that they could make adventurous moves in their near abroads unopposed. Washington is clearly in chaos as we begin 2019. Even in the best of cases, it will take considerable time to repair American democracy. A good working assumption for Moscow and Beijing is that the crisis around the Trump Presidency offers them a window of opportunity of up to two years or so, perhaps more.
Beyond that, the anti-Western argument has legs in both Moscow and Beijing. Russia has been invaded from a western direction on multiple occasions since its creation roughly a millennium ago. China spent much of the 19th century under western domination. The countries in their near abroads are for the most part allies of those that, it can be argued, once oppressed the Russian and Chinese motherlands.
At the same time, there are also important countervailing arguments why Russia and China will not make serious strategic moves in their near broads in 2019-2020.
One is that big thundering powers sometimes flounder in confrontations against smaller, more determined ones. So, the US went down do defeat in Vietnam in 1975. Russia (almost) lost its war with Finland in 1941. China was beaten by the Vietnamese in their 1979 border war. And there are many more examples. Fighting wars is about more than GDP and weapons systems: whether your fighters believe in their battle. Is not everything but it counts for a lot.
A second argument is that for all its current weaknesses and waywardness, what we still call the Western world is not a pushover. Western countries will at one point or the other overcome their current domestic instabilities, and their bilateral and multilateral divergences. The superior economic, political and military arguments are in their camp. They will prevail, even if it takes more time than democrats would wish.
And thirdly, your average Russian and Chinese man and woman in the street doesn’t’ want conflict. They want better education for their kids, more effective health care, improved living conditions, a more benign environment and a fair pension- as reactions to Putin’s recent increases in the pensionable age have underlined. But they will shirk from pressing such demands unless they sense a real chance for change.
PS 1. North Korea will play a key role in any strategic challenge to the US or its allies, launched by Russia and China. I will revisit this issue in a future blog. For the time being, you may want to consult my What if (almost all) the Experts on North Korea have Got it Wrong?
PS. 2. The recent arrests of Canadian and Australian citizens in China provide Beijing with a way of testing the resolve of the two countries and the vitality of their links with their allies. Of course, Beijing is clearly also looking for opportunities for prisoner exchanges. The arrest of the American in Russia with multiple citizenship’s seems more about the latter than anything else.
PS.3 China and particularly Russia have allied themselves to the Maduro regime in Venezuela. This is about producing a security situation in the Western hemisphere that will discourage the US from becoming engaged in other theatres. Putin, in particular, is trying to use Venezuela as he has Syria, sending the message that if you stick with me, dictator, you will be okay, the difference being that despite some limited aircraft deployments, Russia is not going to get heavily militarily involved in Venezuela. Note that the country’s burgeoning economic dysfunctionality is good for both American and Russian oil prices.