Today, the People’s Republic of China is recognized almost universally as not just an economic competitor, but as hell-bent on dominating and intimidating its neighbors and supplanting the United States as the world’s dominant economic, political, and military power. President Joe Biden and future occupants of the Oval Office can ill-afford to underestimate or ignore the nature of the threat it poses. The fact that Beijing and Moscow seem, after decades of estrangement, to be coming together in unified opposition to the United States makes the threat even more serious.
President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 not because he had any illusions about the nature of Mao Zedong or Chou En-lai, but because the United States and the West were facing a growing existential threat from a Soviet Union aligned with Beijing. He believed that a rapprochement with Beijing would enable him to drive a wedge between the two Communist allies that would enhance U.S. security interests. It worked because while the two totalitarian partners had much in common, neither trusted the other.
Many saw Communist China and the USSR then as part of a monolithic Communist bloc that shared a common ideology and an implacable desire to defeat and destroy the United States in their quest for world domination. The reality was more complicated. Suppressed border disputes, doctrinal differences, and personal animosity between their leaders made Beijing and Moscow uneasy bedmates. Mao considered the Soviets too weak-willed to defeat the United States and even broke relations with Moscow for a time over the USSR’s failure to go to war with the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Soviet leaders considered their Chinese allies a little crazy and feared they could spark a new world war while and stationed hundreds of thousands of troops along the Chinese/Russian border. By 1969, Russia was considering a preemptive strike to cripple China’s growing military and nuclear might. Much of this tension resulted from the fact that the USSR was superior in economic and military terms and felt that Mao and his colleagues should accept the role of junior partners and essentially do what they were told.
This rankled for as Nixon observed in his memoirs, “the real problem between China and Russia was that, deep down, the Chinese consider themselves superior and more civilized than the Russians.”
Today’s alliance reverses the old balance and will ultimately require Moscow to recognize a new reality; that Russia is no longer the senior partner and will have to kowtow to Beijing. Thus, today’s alliance that looks like the recreation of a monolithic anti-Western bloc is as fragile as it was in the nineteen seventies, fifty years ago.
History has a way of repeating itself with twists. China and Russia are aligned once again in what many see as another cold war. Both see the United States as their enemy, but the differences that Nixon was able to exploit in 1972 remain. Russia has far more to fear from China than it did then and at some point, that reality will provide the United States with another opportunity to drive another wedge between China and Russia.
Even though this rebalancing is not possible in the short-term, the United States should have a policy for accomplishing it later.
Presidents Xi and Putin have good reasons to collaborate. Job number one for every dictator is to stay in power. They are by nature insecure.
They view the United States and the Free World as a threat both strategically and by being an example of how free people live and what they can achieve. It is the desire for material and spiritual freedom that makes tyrants most uncomfortable as they see themselves facing both external and internal threats to the security of their rule. The rulers of China and Russia fear demonstrations such as those taking place in Russia today or that threatened the stability of Beijing’s rule in the days of the Tiananmen Square protests and tend to blame such internal threats on outside interference. The fear is quite personal. Putin has often told visitors that Muamar el Ghaddafi of Libya, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Slobodan Milošević of Yugoslavia/Serbia were deposed by the West and later executed or died in jail.
Both countries are aggressive in their near abroad and fear the Free World’s rebuke. In such cases, dictatorships benefit from each other’s support against United Nation’s condemnations and Free World economic sanctions.
China and Russia are going to great lengths to advertise their partnership. Presidents Xi and Putin meet often, as do other Chinese and Russian officials. The two countries hold massive joint military maneuvers, sign large economic agreements, and encourage cultural exchanges. Chinese and Russian security forces collaborate as well. But as was the case in the seventies, there is less to this partnership than meets the eye.
This is not an alliance. There is no treaty; their militaries maneuver together but there is no interoperability between them as between NATO countries or between the United States and Japan or South Korea.
Their economic ties are unequally important to them. Russia is subject to broad international sanctions and really needs China’s business. China imports and exports are key to the Russian economy, largely energy and weapons. But China’s largest export partner is the United States with 19 percent of the total and Russia is only twelfth at 1.9 percent. And their economies are not integrated like those of the European Union.
China and Russia share little cultural affinity. China has a sophisticated Asian civilization of several millennia built around Asian religions and Xi like his Marxist/Leninist predecessors persecutes Christianity and religion in general. Russia has a centuries-old culture in the European tradition, revived since the collapse of the Communist regime. Orthodox Christianity is practically a state religion.
Forces pulling China and Russia apart
Future trends will only exacerbate the differences between China and Russia. China has a population of 1.4 billion and the world’s second-largest economy with a GDP of $14 trillion. Russia has a population of 145 million, more than Mexico but less than Brazil, and a GDP of $1.7 trillion, smaller than that of Italy or Texas. China’s economy is diversified, technologically advanced, and grew in 2019 at 6 percent. Russia’s is heavily dependent on energy products and grew at 1.3 percent. China’s population is expected to stay flat to 2050 but Russia’s will shrink.
Militarily dynamics are also unfavorable to Russia. China spends four times more on its military than Russia. In global weapons sales, China has moved from a customer of Russia to a competitor and in today’s technological world, they produce weapons that tend to be superior to those produced and deployed by Russia.
A powerful and more aggressive China poses both a potential and real threat to major Russian interests in the Russian Far East, Central Asia, and the Arctic. Many Chinese believe that much of the Russian Far East, including the port of Vladivostok, were unfairly acquired by Russia in “unequal treaties” in the 19th century. There are seven million Russians in the Russian Far East. Across the border in Manchuria are 100 million Chinese. At some point, Russia will perceive China’s economic encroachment in Central Asia as just as threatening as NATO’s military encroachment in its European near-abroad.
However, the most powerful force pulling these two nations apart will be the need for economic reform in Russia. China’s gross domestic product, GDP, per capita is $10,300 to Russia’s $11,600. France, Germany, Japan, and England have a GDP per capita of around $40,000 and the United States more than $60,000.
China achieved extraordinary economic growth since the 1970s driven by market reforms that freed up much of its economy. But under Xi it is reverting to a traditional Communist reliance on centralized control of the economy. Today’s Chinese economic policies resembles those of the Maoist era more than those of Deng Xiaoping era. And China will become less dynamic and entrepreneurial as a result. Putin and others within the Russian leadership know where traditional Communist economic policies lead. Russia needs economic reform and its leaders will find better economic models in the West.
Russia’s possible shift away from China and towards Europe
Over time, Russia will become increasingly uncomfortable as a junior political partner to a powerful China and as raw materials supplier to a more technologically developed nation. Whether the current season of protests succeed or fail, the prosperity of the Russian people will demand economic and political reforms best accomplished by following the Western rather than the Chinese model.
Russia is a proud nation. Moscow will not want to be perceived as aligning with the United States and thereby exchanging one senior partner for another. Moving closer to Europe though, where the cultural and distance ties are stronger, would be more acceptable to leaders and citizens. Russia would be a major military power in Europe, the country with the largest population, and an important economic partner. Europe is where Russian elite send their children to school, park their money, vacation, and buy second homes.