It’s been a season of love for Russia and China. A two-day May summit in Shanghai culminated in a $400 billion gas deal; in an interview with Chinese state media before the visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia-China cooperation reached its highest level in history. And at a meeting this week on the sidelines of the BRICs Summit in Brazil, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to deepen the relationship even further. After decades of hostility during the Cold War, Beijing and Moscow have realized that many of their interests align more closely than with those of the United States. What’s more, there’s kinship in the fact that both countries are locked in territorial disputes with their neighbors.
Russia, of course, recently annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, continues to sponsor a rebel movement in eastern Ukraine, and aids separatist enclaves in other former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. In early May, Beijing dispatched a billion-dollar oil rig to waters in the South China Sea claimed by both China and Vietnam. Chinese naval vessels reportedly rammed at least one Vietnamese patrol boat while bombarding others with water cannons. A Chinese foreign ministry official said China had shown “utmost restraint” in the confrontation – though China has been turning up the pressure dramatically not only against Vietnam, but also several other Southeast Asian countries with which it has territorial disputes.
But while both clearly have imperial ambitions, Putin has the freer hand to act.
Xi is bound by the reality of his neighborhood. China has the bad luck to be hemmed in by U.S. allies along its eastern seaboard, from Japan and South Korea to the north, to Taiwan and the Philippines in the south. Its southern flank is not much better: India strongly prefers the United States to China, and so does strategically important Burma. Vietnam, which sits on China’s southeast border, is also drawing closer to the U.S. as antagonism towards China grows. In a July 11 New York Times op-ed calling for an alliance between Vietnam and the United States, Tuong Lai, a former adviser to two Vietnamese prime ministers wrote: “Our priority is to defeat our present-day enemy: China.”
Xi can’t push too hard in Vietnam because that could encourage the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping made up mostly of U.S. allies,to close ranks against him — a process that already seems to be happening. Of the 10 ASEAN members, five of them currently have territorial disputes with China, and relations are strained. In February, Philippines President Benigno Aquino compared China’s territorial push to Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland — not a comforting comparison for a country trying to portray its rise as peaceful. The rest of the neighborhood is worried as well. Pew, in a survey of global opinions released July 14, found that “in all 11 Asian nations polled, roughly half or more say they are concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict.”
Putin does not face the same constraints, because NATO isn’t what it used to be. The end of the Cold War has left many of its European members apathetic about defense, and only a few maintain defense budgets at the needed levels. The European Union is heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia, while its member nations are deeply divided on policy towards Moscow — divisions that Putin happily exploits. In stark contrast to ASEAN, no EU countries have open territorial disputes with Moscow, so none feel directly threatened.
Russia is also building a new, cross-border grouping, the Eurasian Union, from some of its post-Soviet neighbors that will help it to expand its geopolitical reach and may also assist in expanding its control of regional energy resources. Unlike China, Russia has the benefit of neighbors that are mostly well disposed towards it, and the Eurasian Union is designed to reinforce that buffer zone by drawing these countries even closer to Russia.
Intentionally or not, the Obama administration has repeatedly signaled that it is far more worried about the long-term strategic risks posed by a rising China than by the activities of Moscow. Earlier this year, Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” acting out of weakness– a categorization that clearly doesn’t fit China. The relationship between Washington and Beijing is additionally complicated by the intricate financial ties and the enormous volume of trade between the two countries. Sino-American trade last year totaled $562 billion; trade between Russia and the United States, by contrast, was a paltry $37 billion. Moscow accordingly stands to pay a relatively low cost for indulging in behavior that irks the Americans, while the stakes for China are far higher.
This also helps explain why Beijing seizes upon every opportunity to proclaim China’s “peaceful rise.” Acting in an aggressive way is far more damaging for China’s interests than for Russia’s. That’s why it’s hard to imagine a commentator on Chinese TV following the lead of Russian commentator Dmitri Kiselev, who has boasted of his country’s ability to transform the United States into “radioactive ash.”
And then there’s the “soft power” conferred by language and culture. Of all the countries surrounding China, Taiwan is the only one with a majority Chinese population or the shared language of Mandarin. Ethnic Chinese communities in the countries surrounding China are wealthy, but small and marginalized. By contrast, the Russian language remains a powerful force in the belt of ex-Soviet countries surrounding Russia, and Moscow has used this advantage to powerful effect, hammering home its claims with the help of state-controlled TV broadcasts far beyond its borders. Putin can use his close cultural ties to Russian minorities in the former countries of the USSR to destabilize any leaders in those nations who express the desire for closer relations with the European Union or NATO (as he has done so effectively in Ukraine).
Putin also has far more leeway to indulge in foreign policy brinkmanship. Fourteen years ago, he took over a Russia reeling and weak after the political and economic turmoil of the 1990s. Consolidating power was a matter of taming a few powerful and deeply unpopular business tycoons. His seizure of Crimea has merely served to cement his sky-high popularity ratings among a Russian public exultant over Crimea’s ‘return.’ The political payoff from Putin’s land grab has been enormous. Having long since dispatched his potential rivals, he looks out on a political landscape that is completely under his control.
Xi faces a dramatically different dynamic. His government’s popularity among his own people draws less upon a sense of nationalistic grievance than on the material achievements of the past 35 years of economic reform. Seeking confrontation could put that at risk. In office for just under two years, Xi is still spending enormous amounts of time and effort consolidating his position. Especially conspicuous has been his massive corruption crackdown: he has reportedly instituted an unprecedented investigation into former security czar Zhou Yongkang, and is probably carrying out the biggest purge in China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, in decades. These are analogous of Putin’s efforts to tame his oligarch opponents in the early years of this century — putting Xi a decade behind the career of his leading frenemy.
To be sure, things aren’t necessarily rosy for Putin. Economic growth is already slowing dramatically; a decline in prosperity for the average Russian could wipe out all of that hard-earned patriotic euphoria in short order.As for Xi, he probably has at least eight more years in office — he may yet cast himself in the mold of Mao Zedong.
That, however, is unlikely. No matter how many officials he purges, Xi is still bound by the surprisingly stable Communist Party system of collective leadership, put in place over the past few decades to prevent the excesses of Mao’s rule from returning. As a result, Xi is still just “the first among equals” in regards to his six comrades in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. In other words, no matter how much he may want to, Xi won’t be stripping off his shirt like the macho Putin anytime soon.