Should we fear the Dragon more than the Bear?

By Keith Best

China has the second largest economy in the world, ten times the size of that of Russia. It has been waiting in the wings for years to take pre-eminent position. Its Belt & Road Initiative, reminiscent of the Silk Road, is a massive infrastructure project that would stretch from East Asia to Europe.  It is a clever strategy but increasingly its recipients have been seeing through the pretence of this being a philanthropic aid programme. China builds economically needed assets such as roads and offers loans to recipient countries to finance such matters. Often, China will also build a hospital or other amenity (but the host country then discovers to its cost that it does not have the necessary infrastructure or amenities – sometimes not even windows!). The country, by then indebted to China, finds it can no longer sustain the loan, defaults on it and the assets are then taken back by the Chinese.Some BRI investments have involved opaque bidding processes and required the use of Chinese firms. As a result, contractors have inflated costs, leading to cancelled projects and political backlash.Yet more than sixty countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so.

China’s ambitions towards Taiwan are well known – it regards the island as part of mainland China rather as Putin regards Ukraine as an integral part of the old Russian Federation and has never accepted its legitimate independence as a nation state. That is why Xi Jinping has been watching how Russia’s invasion fares – there are obvious parallels.

China’s domestic economy (and the authority of Beijing) have taken an enormous knock from its zero-tolerance policy towards Covid – closing down whole sections of industry, imprisoning workers in their own factories and severely restricting movement of the population. Its inadequate and ineffective vaccines have seen probably millions of deaths which are now coming to light as new graves are becoming obvious in many parts of the country. All this has seen a retrenchment from Xi and a loosening up. Yet what is even more remarkable after so many years of Xi’s economic ignorance and neglect is what happened in Davos 2023 with the Special Address by Liu He, Vice-Premier of the People’s Republic of China.

Having extolled the virtues of “mutual understanding” he went on to explain “We will strive to maintain reasonable economic growthand keep prices and jobs stable. More focus will be placed on expanding domestic demand, keeping supply chains stable, supporting the private sector, reforming the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), attracting foreign investment, and preventing economic and financial risks.”

It is clear that he saw the stimulation of China’s domestic economy as a key to growth but, interestingly, for “domestic circulation to function well, it must rely on international division of labour and cooperation, as well as more foreign trade and investment. Therefore, the new development paradigm of dual-circulation is to be pursued in an open economy. China’s national reality dictates that opening up to the world is a must, not an expediency. We must open up wider and make it work better. We oppose unilateralism and protectionism, and look forward to strengthening international cooperation with all countries for world economic stability and development, and the promotion of economic re-globalization.”

This is not quite a return to the open-mindedness of Deng Xiaopingbut it is coming close. Does this mean there has been a policy power struggle in the Forbidden City or that Xi has changed direction in line with his Vice-Premier?  The potentially propitious visit of US Secretary of State Blinken to Beijing was called off due to the Chinese balloon over America affair and a further unidentified floating vehicle which was also shot down has got the usual suspects speculating on the aliens getting here at last!  Such diplomatic spats are unlikely to disrupt any serious move towards a better accommodation which would be highly desirable for all and necessary for China as it needs more markets for its goods having failed to satisfy supply with domestic demand.

There have been calls from prominent politicians in the UK that on his proposed visit to the UK the governor of Xinjiang, ErkinTuniyaz, should be arrested for China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang amounting to genocide. 

Against the pragmatic and logical view that surveillance satellites and spying should not disrupt commercial transactions are the dire warnings from existing and former heads of security that relations between China and the West are at their lowest ebb since before 1972 (when Nixon made his historic visit to China following the souring of the relationship between the USSR and China – the Sino-Soviet split – leading to improved China/USA relations and subsequent USA dropping of its objection to China joining the United Nations).

It is true that Xi Jinping’s policy during the Covid crisis (for which he has been roundly criticised) showed that he has more concern over central control than the economic health of China and its businesses which makes him much more dangerous than Deng Xiaoping who took over after Mao’s death in 1976 leading China through a series of far-reaching market-economy reforms gaining the reputation as the “Architect of Modern China” and moving the country to becoming the world’s second largest economy by nominal GDP in 2010.

Such renewed bellicosity by both China and USA enhances the risk of miscalculation and misapprehension leading to a potential military crisis, whether over Taiwan or some incident in the South China Seas.

In the meantime, the war in Ukraine continues with no realistic prospect of the basis for peace in the foreseeable future. Ukraine will not negotiate on any basis other than regaining all lost territory (including Crimea and that gained in 2014). Putin cannot afford such a compromise and might only be prepared for a ceasefire on the basis of the status quo.

Clearly, Putin is playing the long game: he has put Russia on a war footing and knows that the grim statistics of attrition favour his population against smaller Ukraine: Russian soldiers will die but can be replaced more than the Ukrainians can provide. He also knows that supporting NATO countries have stripped themselves of ammunition and much material by supplying Ukraine and will have to increase dramatically their defence budgets to replenish and continue. He is counting not only militarily that such supply will diminish but that also political boredom will start fracturing the current solidarity and nations will drop out through fatigue, finance or public opinion.

He can probably last (subject to his health) for several years as did Russia in Chechnya (1999 to April 2009) and Afghanistan (1979-1989) – both ten years.  Europe would look and behave very differently after a ten year war in Ukraine and it is extremely unlikely that military and political support could last that long. Putin knows that the difference between democracies and autocracies is that in the former political leadership and opinion changes whereas a dictator with a firm grip (even if he has not been appointed for life) can sustain a policy despite any change in an otherwise controlled domestic sentiment. If European support could last that long it is likely that it would reduce to just a few Western countries.

The problem with dictatorships, on the other hand, is that you never know when the assassin’s bullet or natural causes will strike – death usually means a change which is not the penalty paid by mortality in a democracy. Although we might dismiss surveys in Russian public opinion, subject to such state controlled media and propaganda, the fact that Putin still commands approval ratings of over 70% and much of this will be genuine sentiment – we fool ourselves if we claim to the contrary. Yet some 52% of all Russians will now know directly or indirectly someone serving (dying or being mutilated) in the conflict. Maybe the change in public opinion will come (as it did with Afghanistan) when the body bags become a flood and the graveyards are full.

While wondering if the relationship between Russia and USA could get any worse,President Putin announced on the anniversary of the war on 21 February 2023 that Russia is “suspending” its participation in New START (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), meaning at least that Russia will not allow NATO countries to inspect its nuclear arsenal, as pointed out by the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy. The treaty still runs through 2026 and, according to Putin’s remarks, Russia will not completely “withdraw” from it; “however, this marks another bleak turn in the degrading diplomatic relationship between the US and Russia.”

What will China do about the war? So far, despite the vows of eternal friendship and solidarity expressed in the Beijing Olympics in February (which may have been the catalyst for the Russian invasion later that month), China has wanted to sit on the fence – not condemning the war but not actively siding with Russia. That is why, notwithstanding the rumours that China will supply arms it is unlikely to do so. From a military perspective why would China make the same mistake as Russia in exposing its armaments to perceived failure on the battlefield? Likewise, even though sanctions have not hurt Russia in anything like that anticipated (there is still trade, even if disguised, and the World Bank predicts a 4.3% increase this year!) China knows that as it tries to climb out of the Covid debacle and lockdown’s economic consequences it can little afford a trade embargo or sanctions.

The war in Ukraine is rapidly becoming a wider conflict although not yet directly between Russia and NATO – the latter has been at pains to point out that although certain member states of NATO are providing arms, munitions and other war materiel the Alliance is not at war with Russia. Yet the slightest incursion by Russia into Estonian, Polish or other NATO territory would invoke Article 5 and bring the whole of NATO into direct confrontation initiating what many would then describe as World war III. It is a terrifying prospect in which the use of nuclear weapons, especially by the side that seems to be losing, becomes much more probable than now seems likely in Ukraine. Those who somewhat glibly toy with the possible use of nuclear weapons in the current conflict do not understand the utility of tactical (as opposed to strategic) nuclear weapons and the danger (as seen at Chernobyl) of fallout having a wider impact, perhaps affecting the country which launched them.

Yet, in a way, the concept of the conflict has already widened. President Biden in his speech in Warsaw on 21 February stated “When Russia invaded, it wasn’t just Ukraine being tested.  The whole world faced a test for the ages.Europe was being tested.  America was being tested.  NATO was being tested.  All democracies were being tested.  And the questions we faced were as simple as they were profound.” He answered his questions “Would we stand up for the sovereignty of nations?  Would we stand up for the right of people to live free from naked aggression?  Would we stand up for democracy?” affirmatively. He referred to the vote in October in which 143 nations in the United Nations condemned Russia’s illegal annexation and only four voted with Russia.He posed a question relevant to us all – whatever our views about the merits of the war: “What kind of world do we want to build?”  he made it very clear that in his view the war is far more than a territorial aggression but a conceptual conflict between democracies and autocracies. As China and Russia line up and as the democracies stand firm it is difficult not to see it in this way.

I am a democrat and I believe in freedom. I recognise the fault lines: democracy can be inefficient with reversal of policies as whimsical as public opinion; one person’s freedom can be another’s oppression. Nevertheless, since the days of limited democratic involvement in the Ancient World we have seen it develop with an extension of the franchise and voting systems to give a greater voice to the people. We are now surrounded by human rights instruments which enable us to identify clearly where freedom is being denied and where people risk their lives in order to secure it. It is no longer possible to hide behind the excuse of poor definition or alternative interpretation.

We are faced not only with a war of ideologies but the uncomfortable truth that there are now fewer democracies and fewer people living in a free democratic state than a decade ago: the world has fallen from all-time democratic highs to a level similar to earlier decades. Yet the author of this revelation (demonstrated with facts and figures), Bastian Herre in Our World in Data in September 2022 also states that “the recent democratic decline is precedented, and past declines were reversed. The world underwent phases of autocratization in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, people fought to turn the tide, and pushed democratic rights to unprecedented heights. We can do the same again.” Freedom House have a similar daunting assessment: its Freedom in the World 2021 report “found that the share of countries designated Not Free has reached its highest level since the deterioration of democracy began in 2006, and that countries with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered those with gains by the largest margin recorded during the 15-year period. The report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, representing 75 percent of the global population. Those affected include not just authoritarian states like China, Belarus, and Venezuela, but also troubled democracies like the United States and India.”

These are sobering findings but ones that should redouble our efforts to overcome cynicism in democratic institutions, adapt to modern means of communication and pursue with even greater vigour our resistance to autocracy and our goal of democratic global governance.