As the Western world fixates on Donald Trump, Brexit and all its other problems, its rivals watch with fascination and glee. Russia and China are cooperating more closely than ever before, learning from each other and increasingly confident they can remodel the world to their will.
Their approach – unashamedly autocratic, tough on human rights and increasingly open to using military force in their neighbourhoods – pushes back against almost all the assumptions the US and its allies have made since 1989. So far, there’s precious little sign anyone in authority in Washington, Whitehall or continental Europe has much of a plan to combat it, at least beyond military and diplomatic posturing.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met each other five times, including at the largest ever joint drills between their armies. Trade between the two nations increased by over 30 per cent in 2018, and is expected to rise further with new infrastructure projects such as the first cross-border rail bridge, finished late last month. On diplomatic issues such as Syria and Venezuela, the two powers appear increasingly in lockstep.
That doesn’t mean there are not still strains between the two. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of their six-month 1969 border conflict, and there are those in both Beijing and Moscow – particularly in Moscow – who view each other still as rivals. Given China’s enthusiasm for infrastructure projects and Russia’s need for cash, plus the world’s fifth-longest international land boundary, it is striking how limited cross-border links remain: while the rail link is almost finished, a parallel road project remains in stasis.
But even that might change. Both Russia and China have a whole host of gains they wish to make, particularly when it comes back to pushing back Washington in their immediate backyards. And collaboration, they suspect, may be the way to do it.
At the very least, both Putin and Xi – and the wider leadership around them –seem caught up in a cycle of mutual admiration. In Russia, where many believed they lost the Cold War on scientific and business prowess, China’s economic growth is increasingly touted as a model Moscow, too, should follow. Beijing, for its part, has learned from Moscow’s success in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond in harnessing conventional military force and unconventional subversion to get around decades of Western dominance.
How well Putin and Xi truly get on in private is impossible to gauge: their meetings are dominated by propaganda, including over an apparent shared love of good food and ice hockey. But clearly the two have much in common. They were born within a year of each other, have entrenched a degree of power unseen in either country in decades, and have acted ruthlessly to keep it.
The consequences for those who have got in their way have often been savage – and they appear increasingly willing to apply the same approach in international affairs. As in the Cold War, the greatest losers have often been in other countries: the population of Syria have suffered repeatedly from Moscow and Beijing’s determination to ensure the survival of President Bashar al-Assad, and end what both countries saw as a never-ending series of Western-backed regime changes.
In both states, greater assertiveness abroad has come alongside dramatically increased repression at home. With its periodic extrajudicial killings and attacks on any political opposition, few would now cost Putin’s Russia as anything approaching a democracy. China, too, becomes more repressive by the year, with high-tech surveillance and a society built increasingly on government allocated “social credit scores”. Xi’s government has arrested hundreds if not thousands in anticorruption drives, including formerly powerful politicians and business leaders. It now also holds what the UN says may be more than 1,000,000 minority Muslim Uighurs in camps, almost certainly the largest mass incarceration of a religious or ethnic group since the Holocaust.
Western states’ response to all this has been largely dictated by other factors. For Trump’s America, relations with China are now dominated by their trade war, and Washington’s criticism of Beijing tends to rise and fall in relation to that negotiating cycle. European nations – including Britain – have tended to worry much more about Russia, and through a military prism, particularly since the 2008 Georgia and 2014 Ukraine wars.
For the United States, the biggest nightmare is the increased security cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. The US military already worries over its ability to fight either on its own, in Europe or Asia respectively. A war with both at once would prove hugely challenging, even if it did not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.
Ever since 1945, American strategy for dealing with these kinds of foes has been based on its alliances. Trump, with his isolationism and clear dislike of European leaders in particular, makes that much harder. And the less likely America looks to back up friends in Europe or Asia, the more likely Moscow and Beijing are to overplay their hand.
That’s a problem. We risk entering an era where democracies can no longer find common ground, imperilling the western alliance that has dominated the globe since 1945. And Russia and China have some very different ideas on how to run the world.