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The perils of autocracy

Poor policies, once adopted, are difficult to abandon, as the leaders of Russia and China are demonstrating.

By Lawrence Freedman

At the start of February Vladimir Putin made a pilgrimage to Beijing to meet the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. The occasion was the start of the Winter Olympics, which was followed almost immediately by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, just as the Winter Olympics hosted by Putin in Sochi eight years earlier had been followed almost immediately by the annexation of Crimea. Whether or not Putin told Xi of his plans, it was an important part of his strategy for the coming move against Ukraine to have China on his side. It suited him also to meet as if he was an equal with Xi, confirming Russia’s status as a great power, one of his major preoccupations. In practice, of course, the two were far from equals. Whereas once China was the Soviet Union’s junior partner in the communist international, now Russia is the weaker partner. As China vies for the top spot in the international economic rankings with the United States, Russia no longer even makes the top ten.

Friendship without limits

The two men promised that their friendship would have “no limits”. They signed a lengthy communiqué in which they described their countries as upholding the underlying principles of the United Nations, following international law, affirming human rights, authentically democratic, ready to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, and sharing a determination to challenge American pretensions to global predominance. The communiqué did not mention Ukraine, referring only to the Russian Federation’s proposals “to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”, which China supported. Reciprocating, the Russian side reaffirmed “its support for the One China principle” and opposed “any forms of independence of Taiwan”.

It is not surprising that these two men, who are now both 69, find much to admire in each other. They have both found ways to consolidate their autocratic rule by getting round constitutions that ensured rotating leaderships by limiting presidents to two terms. They have both suppressed independent media, shutting out dissident thoughts and deflecting discontent. They both use ultra-nationalism, along with regular references to the Second World War, as a means of mobilising public support. (The communiqué strongly condemned “actions aimed at denying the responsibility for atrocities of Nazi aggressors, militarist invaders, and their accomplices, besmirch and tarnish the honour of the victorious countries”.) They are both in the process of demonstrating that while autocracies provide supreme leaders with opportunities to act decisively and boldly, this can also lead them to follow catastrophically poor policies which are then difficult to abandon.

As if to illustrate this point, since the two met Putin has failed to subdue Ukraine while Xi has failed to subdue Covid-19. In terms of deaths per capita – if official statistics are to be believed – China has done better than most. But Xi promised zero Covid and that is unachievable. Because of the persistence of the disease and the limited quality of the Chinese vaccines, cases keep on popping up. The authorities are fearful that Covid might get out of control and so make Xi look foolish. To avoid this, as soon as even asymptomatic cases appear in a particular place, there are draconian lockdowns. Each time this happens, popular discontent rises and the economy slows. This aggravates an already parlous economic situation, reflecting global problems (made worse by Russian cuts to energy supplies) and domestic difficulties, largely connected with the real estate sector collapsing with massive debts. As the Communist Party’s legitimacy has come to depend on high growth, this economic slowdown provides an unwelcome backdrop to the 20th Party Congress, scheduled for later this year. Here Xi will seek to persuade his comrades to anoint him president for life. The best assumption has been, and probably still is, that this will be nodded through, simply because of Xi’s tight grip on the levers of power, but it may not now be quite as smooth a ride as he had anticipated.

[See also: Uyghur detention camps: a special report on a culture under attack]

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A friendship with limits

Nor has the Sino-Russian partnership delivered as hoped. Although the public line is that it is deep and unbreakable, it has benefited Russia far less than anticipated by the heady rhetoric of February. China has played up the shared anti-Americanism and condemned the West’s resort to punitive economic sanctions, but it has backed away from wholehearted support of Russia. It abstained on UN votes and has not endorsed the war against Ukraine. It has provided no weapons to Russia to make up those lost in the war and has notably failed to find promising areas in which to invest in the Russian economy. Nor has it used its connections to both Moscow and Kyiv to play a mediating role. This was mooted early in the conflict and would at least have provided an opportunity to demonstrate how big a player China can now be.

If Putin had been riding the crest of a wave after a successful occupation of Ukraine, then Xi would have welcomed any consequential Western humiliation. He might still gain some comfort from Washington being so distracted that it has not been putting as much energy as before into its Indo-Pacific policies, although that did not stop the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which China claims as its own. Putin’s failure, however, has raised awkward questions for Beijing.

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First, it has shown how small states can defend themselves when invaded by large states, using a “porcupine strategy” that aims to make the territory as indigestible as possible for invading forces. Second, Russian weapons – some of which China has bought – have turned out to be no match for their Western counterparts. This underlines the qualitative advantages that the US might enjoy in any future war with China. Third, Western countries have shown unexpected levels of solidarity and unity even when their economic interests are adversely affected.

For these reasons, Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine might encourage China to be more cautious when considering any military offensive against Taiwan. China’s advantages in size and military strength in relation to Taiwan are far greater than Russia’s in relation to Ukraine. Russia, however, just had to cross a border into Ukraine while China has to travel across the open sea for 200km before it reaches Taiwan.

Fourth, the invasion of Ukraine has heightened global awareness of the security dimensions of international trade and finance. Russia’s response to sanctions has been to exploit its position as a major exporter of oil and gas. This has exposed its unreliability as a supplier, which might not be so wise when its major customers were already under pressure to move away from fossil fuels. Having been obliged to reduce one form of dependence, Western countries are also now scrutinising other supply relationships to identify potential vulnerabilities. In addition to long-standing concerns about Chinese control over vital raw materials and telecommunications infrastructure, the pandemic demonstrated the speed with which apparently reliable supply chains can be disrupted. Ironically, sanctions and shortages have also highlighted Taiwan’s vital role as the source of 90 per cent of the world’s most advanced microchips, an issue that would soon come to the fore should it be invaded or blockaded by China.

Fifth, Putin’s failure has demonstrated the limits to purely coercive policies. Russia’s efforts to intimidate other countries have generally been counter-productive. China’s similar approach, with its uncompromising “wolf warrior diplomacy”, determined to betray no weakness, has led to its neighbours becoming more wary of its power and ready to strengthen their own defences or their alliances with the US.

[See also: Why China and India are sending troops to Russia]

China and Taiwan

China’s problems are nowhere near as severe as Russia’s. While the image of an effortless and inexorable rise to global predominance has been dented, it is not a country that can easily be ignored and marginalised. For the moment Washington must respond with its allies to the desperate Russian action in Ukraine, but over time it is China that appears the most substantial challenge for American foreign policy. A degree of engagement with Beijing is necessary. The extent of economic interdependence means that there can be no quick and clean breaks. Cooperation is required on issues such as climate change. Yet this is also a country that abuses human rights, appears to be developing alarming forms of social control, will not tolerate criticism from other states, and is gearing up for a showdown over Taiwan at some point.

In some ways Taiwan is in a similar position to Ukraine. It has no formal alliance with the US, although for both arms sales are important. Arguably Ukraine has a stronger case for support. It is unambiguously an independent sovereign state with a right to self-defence. Taiwan’s position is anomalous. When the Communists won the civil war in China in 1949, the previous government, led by Chiang Kai-shek of the nationalist Kuomintang party, fled to Taiwan (then Formosa), still claiming authority over all of China. So both Taipei and Beijing have always agreed that there was only one China. The issue was whether it should be run by the Kuomintang or the Communists.

This was a toxic issue in American politics, which is why it took so long to recognise that the Communists were obviously in charge on the mainland. After the deep split that developed during the 1960s between the Soviet Union and China, the Nixon administration saw an opportunity to forge a new relationship with China, though this meant accepting that the Communists and not the Nationalists now represented the country at the UN. In return, successive American administrations have felt under some obligation to protect Taiwan. When Joe Biden was asked in May whether he was “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that”, he replied unequivocally, “yes”.

So long as China and Taiwan stuck to the line that they are part of the same country, only with different political systems, it seemed likely that the status quo could survive. Productive economic ties developed between the two. But there has always been a question of how long China would tolerate this separation. Any declaration that Taiwan is an independent country, quite separate from China, is understood by all parties to represent a red line that would prompt Chinese intervention. There is concern that Xi has lost confidence that the two will naturally grow closer because of cultural ties and economic interdependence. The principle of “one country, two systems” has been dealt a blow by China’s treatment of Hong Kong, which has lost the autonomy granted when it was handed back to China in 1997 after ceasing to be a British colony and is now having Chinese laws and practices foisted upon it. The fast build-up of China’s military power has given Xi options that would not have been available to his predecessors. He has made bringing Taiwan back to the fold a high priority for his coming period in office. This is why, even before Pelosi’s visit, there was a considerable amount of “surely they won’t but perhaps they will” speculation comparable to that with which we started the year with Russia and Ukraine.

In this context, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has stirred things up. She has always been a critic of China on human rights grounds, from the 1989 repression at Tiananmen Square to the contemporary treatment of the Uyghurs. She is now making a point about Taiwan. The timing of her visit made the Biden administration unhappy, not because of any policy disagreements, let alone her right to make the visit, but because it wants to keep relations with China calm to ensure that it does not increase its support for Russia. Biden and Xi spoke last week. The US president was warned that he was “playing with fire” if the Speaker’s visit went ahead. This, of course, guaranteed that the US would not stop the visit taking place.

As Pelosi landed, to an enthusiastic welcome, Taiwan has been subjected to minor economic sanctions, a denial of service cyber-attack, ostentatious movement of Chinese military units, overflights by aircraft, and so on. More seriously, there are to be live-fire drills around the coasts of Taiwan and a demonstration of how the Chinese navy would implement a blockade of the island (in many ways a more likely future option than a full-blown invasion).

In the short term, the problem for Beijing is that none of this has made any difference to the visit. China has shown its displeasure but also its caution. Having made a fuss about the visit but then failed to stop it happening is embarrassing. It can at least claim to put down a marker to discourage further such visits. In the next few days there is a risk of the sort of incidents that could lead to escalation but the real concern is over the long term. So long as Beijing finds Taiwan’s de facto independence intolerable, then war is a serious possibility. Taiwan will become more of an armed camp ready to make China pay heavily should it try to occupy the island and will become even more determined to resist coercive pressures, including by a blockade. US prestige will become more attached to Taiwan’s defence and it will look to allies to play a role, especially if the issue is one of freedom of the seas.

It is not obvious that there is a good outcome for China if it pushes too hard, in the same way that there is no good outcome for Russia in Ukraine. Russia’s experience should warn Xi of the pitfalls accompanying any military action even when the odds look very favourable, including the risk that in the effort to take territory it wanted badly it would end up devastating the land and its people, let alone the possibility of war with the United States. This is the peril of autocracy – a conviction that a supreme leader, beyond challenge at home and presiding over vast armed forces, should always be able to get what he wants and never needs to compromise.

[See also: How Vladimir Putin views the world]