Russia and China Play by a Different Set of Rules

Alienate your friends and alarm your adversaries. That is the policy pursued by Vladimir Putin’s Russia for 15 years. The results have been disastrous from a Kremlin point of view. Russia has consolidated Ukraine’s national identity, turned Sweden and Finland into foreign-policy hawks, and brought NATO to the realization that the Baltic states need defending. Now even Germany is fed up: the government in Berlin wants to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on the head of Russia’s military intelligence agency, in retaliation for a cyberattack on the Bundestag (Parliament) in 2015.

It is easy to scoff at a strategy that has isolated and marginalized Russia. The Kremlin’s allies are a miserable list of Libyan warlords, Venezuelan despots, African tyrants, and Syria’s blood-drenched Assad regime.

But China under Xi Jinping does not scoff at Putin. It copies him.

Back in 2012, the outside world had largely given up on the idea of containing or constraining China. Some thought that China’s was outright benign. Others just thought it was inevitable. Either way, it was hard to see who would resist it effectively or how. Places like Hong Kong and Taiwan would sooner or later fall fully into the People’s Republic’s de facto sphere of influence. As late as 2014, John Mearsheimer, a revered international-relations theorist, wrote a piece called “Say Goodbye to Taiwan.”

China’s thin-skinned bullying has changed our minds. Countries such as Australia, Canada, and Sweden are radically rethinking their view of China. Britain is hastily realising its mistake. The U.S. administration now treats China, at least rhetorically, as a global villain. New coalitions are forming to confront and constrain Chinese power. Western democracies are uneasy about influence-peddling in their academic, media, and political systems. They are increasingly ready to pay a serious economic price to reduce the risk of supply chains dependent on China.

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None of this was foreseen a few years ago. None of it was inevitable. It is all the result of Xi Jinping’s overreach.

Yet the policy is not quite as stupid as it seems. For a start, it works well at home. The real target of China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy (named after a Chinese Rambo-type adventure hero) is not foreign countries. It is domestic opinion. Like Putin, Xi has realized that fanning nationalist and anti-Western sentiments at home is a useful tactic. It distracts from political, economic, and social stresses.

It may also work abroad. Foreign policy victories over an alert and determined adversary are more rewarding than those gained by stealth. It may be nice for the Kremlin to have Ukraine — as it was 10 years ago — as a docile and sleepy neighbor ruled by corrupt satraps. But it is even better to punish a country that has publicly tried to turn to the West.

Similarly, peaceful unification with Taiwan under some variant of “One Country, Two Systems” would be a fine outcome for China by the standards of the past. But it would be even more rewarding to reveal the United States as impotent by forcing Taiwan into a dramatic surrender.

The point here is that what may seem a risky, and potentially counterproductive approach by the standards of the outside world can make perfect sense to those schooled in the ruthless doctrines of Leninist political warfare. Why go for a win-win outcome when you can have win-lose, humiliating your opponent and sending a fearsome message to anyone else who dares to resist you?

From our point of view, Putin and Xi may seem to be disastrously mistaken. But from their standpoint, they have been winning — and expect more victories to come.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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