Following the cyclical course of history, the war in Ukraine most probably marks the end of the period that started immediately after the Cold War. The new period that is taking shape has special significance for international politics as it is close to causing major changes in the international system. The world of the 21st century is turning different, obeys new requirements and generates new-type crises that find the countries unprepared. It is a unipolar world that tends towards multipolarity, being marked by political instability, armed conflicts and confrontations that are different from those that existed at the end of the 20th century. The particularity of this period is shaped by the level at which the confrontations between the forces that claim to establish the new world order take place and also by the used means: economic pressure, selective assistance, diplomatic maneuvers, propaganda, low-intensity military operations and the imminent large-scale war.
“Chimera ... of imperial revenge raging through the world”
The key elements that defined the international systems during the Cold War amounted to: communist ideology vs. democracy, capitalism vs. socialism, NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact. The collapse of the USSR and of the Socialist system guided by the Soviets changed the paradigm of the international competition, inducing another perspective of the civilization systemic confrontation, replacing the conflict between capitalism and communism with the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. The chimera of communism increasingly rages through the world, but the phantom of imperial revenge took its place and became a greater challenge for civilization. Russia, which became the main heir of the Soviet empire, claims the right to preferential geopolitical influence over the whole territory of the former empire, invoking the maintaining of its devastating nuclear attack capability as the key argument.
Even if the current world seems to be the same as yesterday’s world, it is seen with different eyes. A change, a transformation occurs not only at political, military or ideological level, but also at the levels of human mentality and culture. The most advanced part of civilization from technological viewpoint embraced the culture of social organization by the principles of Western democracy. The other part, paying tribute to the historical tradition and complying with the interests of the leading elites, tries different forms of social organization by using authoritarian political formulas. China and Russia are the most notable representatives of this last civilization development trend and also the main opponents of the unipolar world.
Three ways of Socialist abandonment
The Leninist Socialism was abandoned by the countries of the Socialist camp by three ways. The first way was embraced by a part of the former Socialist states that unambiguously chose to associate themselves with Western liberal democracy, becoming members of NATO and the European Union or aspiring to this status. Another way was chosen by the second group of states that followed Russia, which replaced the Socialist system in the economy and politics by oligarchic order and authoritarian political regime. The third way was patented by the Chinese Communist Party and resides in the putting into practice of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy for reforming Maoist China, resorting to the gradual opening of the economy, according to market principles, but simultaneously keeping the Communist Party’s full control over the political sphere.
The development of the oligarchic system in Russia and in most of the CIS states led to the formation of authoritarian political regimes and to the limitation of democratic rights in these societies. Under the oligarchic system, the economies developed insufficiently and most of these states remained on the periphery of the technological performance with a precarious social sphere. In Russia, the regime resorted to the traditional method of camouflaging the own incompetence in the organization of the economy by inflating the imperial nostalgia in society. Historically, Russian society was educated in the spirit of imperial grandeur, the shortage of food being replaced with the alleged feeling of spiritual superiority of the Russian nation over other nations. The logical continuity of such a strategy that is designed to keep political control over Russian society imminently stimulated the imperial revenge, including by applying the war policy. The war in Ukraine is a normal continuation of the political paradigm and, in a broad meaning, of the cultural paradigm typical of Russian society.
Haste makes waste
Attacking Ukraine in the hope that a swift victory will be won, the regime of Putin found itself in front of a consolidated position of the West to counteract the Russian military aggression. In such conditions, Moscow pressingly needs allies and incites China to openly support Russia’s war against Ukraine as “a battle with the collective West”, banking on the contradictions existing in the U.S.-China relations. There is no doubt that the viewpoints of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and of Vladimir Putin are similar in their basic preconditions concerning the role of the U.S. in the world. This way, through the position that was announced publicly by the Chinese leader, concerning the cultural, social, informational and political influence of the West, this is directly perceived and named as the main threat to Chinese communism. Nevertheless, unlike his Russian counterpart, Xi Jinping, in full compliance with the millenary Chinese cultural tradition, believes that time is on his side and his task is to keep the country far from shocks up to the moment that China will become sufficiently strong to fully impose its interests. From Vladimir Putin’s viewpoint, the battle with the West would have been lost if Russia hadn’t started the war against Ukraine, while Xi Jinping considers the battle would have been lost if China had become involved in this war, which shouldn’t have been started. According to Chinese economists, China will outstrip the United States in terms of the GDP until 2030 and the complications at international level caused by Putin’s war run counter to China’s long-lasting interests.
Furthermore, Moscow’s policy to annex territories that belong to the sovereign Ukrainian state brings into question Beijing’s efforts to recover Taiwan as part of the territorially unified China. To the same extent, the encouraging and supporting by Moscow of the secessionist enclaves in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia create international precedents that are detrimental to China in the perspective of solving the Taiwan problem. Regarded through this angle, the Russian invasion of Ukraine put Xi Jinping in a difficult position. On the one hand, China in 2022 became the main commercial partner of Russia and the commercial exchanges between the two states grew by over 33% during a year. But the growth is not only quantitative, but also qualitative: the supplies from China mostly replaced the reduced supplies from Europe. On the other hand, China needs close ties with the Western world without which the completion of the process of promoting China as a great world power can be compromised. Consequently, there was chosen an amiable neutrality tactic in which China enabled Russia to sell more oil, gas and coal on the Chinese market in exchange for significantly increasing the exports of Chinese products of the light industry, consumer electronic equipment and cars. As a result, the effects of the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the Western bloc have been diminished.
Russian cheap resources in the service of China’s interests
Nonetheless, China avoids supplying weapons or components for making these to Russia. On the contrary, it recently became known that China refused to supply Moscow with microprocessors, which are necessary for making military equipment. This ban clearly shows the limits of the cooperation between the two states. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, China supports Russia exactly to the extent to which the country’s interests require in the understanding of Xi Jinping. This understanding amounts to China’s interests in making use of Russian natural resources that are growing cheaper owing to the sanctions: oil, gas, coal and metal, wheat and soybean, and also in the absence of conflicts on the northern border and Russia’s voice in the UN Security Council, which is almost always in consonance with China’s.
However, time is the main resource Moscow offered to Beijing. If there had been no war, the contradictions between the U.S. and China would have become the main content of the years 2022 and 2023. By attracting the United States’ attention to himself, Vladimir Putin offered Xi Jinping the possibility of taking a break in a relatively confortable way and of regaining the positions lost owing to the failed internal policies against COVID-19. As many experts consider, almost everyone will lose as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, while China is the beneficiary of the created situation at the current stage already.
Significantly different strategies
Based on these and other examples, we can say that the Chinese administration, even if it is authoritarian, applies a strategy that is significantly different from the Russian one. In Russia, the regime of Putin more drastically limits the democratic freedoms, while in China, the authorities, instead of suppressing massively the anti-COVID protest in which the demonstrators for the first time in decades sought, among others, the resignation of Xi Jinping and the removal of the Communist Party, the reaction was unexpected: to lift the quarantine restrictions. Despite the apparently negative public perception consequences of this step for the leader’s reputation, it was ultimately taken a decision that satisfied the people’s demand and abided by common sense.
Another conspicuous example of the prudent and balanced behavior of the Chinese authorities was their reaction to the August visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress Nancy Pelosi. China considers Taiwan is its territory and the U.S. politician’s intentions were interpreted as an attack on the country’s sovereignty. China promised not to remain indifferent and to provide a harsh response, while Moscow even expected that this response would be similar to a “special military operation” against Taiwan. But nothing happened ultimately: the U.S. official flied freely to the island, discussed with local politicians and returned home without consequently. The state-owned Russian media put great hopes in a “harsh response” from Beijing, but China’s reaction disappointed them a lot.
Putin made a mistake here too
In conclusion, we should note that the regime of Putin mistakenly banked on China’s plenary support for Moscow’s position in the war in Ukraine. An increasing number of data show that Beijing prepares a reorientation of its foreign policy to distance itself from Moscow, intuiting a decline in the economic and political influence of Russia as a direct result of the disastrous invasion by this of Ukraine and an eventual fall of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, it is as evident that Beijing has yet a lot to gain in the short term from the created situation, considering that the special relationship with Russia is a useful bargaining cheap in its dispute with the West. At the same time, the Chinese Communist regime hopes to profit from the postwar reconstruction boom in Ukraine, which is impossible in the absence of a sustainable peace treaty favorable to Ukraine. This is a mandatory condition for the appearance of a powerful flow of investments from the West. All these taken together sound like a requiem for Moscow whose international isolation will become more pronounced, while Putin’s policy will turn Russia into a less influential country on the international arena. At the same time, China will strengthen its positions and will fully benefit from the inevitable weakening of Moscow’s influence at international level, extensively turning Russia into a supplier of cheap natural resources and an annex of the Chinese economy in full expansion.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.