A 2020 Priority: Understanding Russia And China

Jan 18th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The United States faces a new world order as we begin 2020.  It is an unstable world filled with uncertainties and significant threats.  It is thus important to remind ourselves as Americans that Russia and China remain the two formidable enemies of the US.  Each has goals that run counter to American interests and each poses both a global and a military danger.  We must understand them.

First is Russia under Vladimir Putin.  Without question, Putin has re-established Russia as a major player in the Middle East, an area that was dominated by the US until recently.  As Angela Stent, former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, argues, the ambivalence of the US under both the Obama and Trump administrations, “has given Putin the space to pursue his vision of a pragmatic, interest-based policy.  Russia is the only big foreign power that talks to all the region’s key sectors: Iran, the Sunni Arab states, Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.  How did Putin do this?

  • In September 2015, Moscow surprised the world with a bombing campaign in Syria that saved from defeat the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a result, Putin has emerged as a stalwart opponent of regime change—“a particular selling point for the governments of the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2011.  Putin particularly was appalled by the October 2011 death of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi at rebel hands.  He has positioned Russia as a defender of the region’s status quo, offering support and arms to friendly regimes.”
  • Putin has also reversed longstanding Soviet policy by cultivating two new partners—Israel and Saudi Arabia, which happens to be the foremost regional allies of the US. Israel’s Netanyahu “was the only major Western leader to attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow last May, standing next to Mr. Putin and wearing the orange-and-black ribbon of St. George, a symbol of Russian sacrifice in World War II and of Mr. Putin’s recent intrusions into Crimea and Ukraine.”  Moscow’s burgeoning relationships with Saudi Arabia represent an huge change in Russia’s policies.  In 2017, King Salman made a state visit to Moscow, complete with a lavish welcoming ceremony and an honorary degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Russia is still hobbled by its limited economic and military resources, but it is now a major player in the Middle East.  As the US continues its retreat from this region, Putin is guaranteed to fill the vacuum the US leaves.

Second is China under President Xi Jinping.  China is challenging US presence in Asia both economically and militarily.  It economy is second only to the US and in many areas of technology it is ahead of the US (e.g., in Artificial intelligence technology).  Several comments about Xi’s China:

  • First, China represents an anomaly in history: It is promoting a form of state capitalism without any concomitant political freedom for its citizens.  After the devastating rule of Mao Zedong, China began overhauling its collapsing economy.  Into the 1990s, the new model that emerged encouraged private enterprise and sought to revitalize the state sector by privatizing smaller firms and building larger ones.  By 1992, it was clear that economic reform and political reform were bifurcated.  This new model is widely credited with lifting millions of Chinese out of poverty and of transforming China into the world’s second-largest economy.  But China now faces the results of three decades of unbridled state-led growth—income inequality, environmental degradation and excessive government debt.  Can it pursue its unusual form of state capitalism and continue to restrict individual, personal and political freedoms?
  • Second, China under XI is attempting to rewrite its history, especially the late 20th Xi has made clear that under his watch, the Party will keep a tight grip on how China is portrayed.  In an early speech to Party officials, Xi warned that “domestic and foreign hostile forces” were trying to smear the party’s past.  He wants the history of Tiananmen Square in 1989, for example, to challenge the pro-democracy narrative of these protests.  He strongly believes that critical assessments of the Party’s past even in 1989 are “historical nihilism.”  Such negative discourse and reporting contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Separating economic freedoms from political freedoms is essential to the Xi narrative.  To allow any significant degree of political freedom or to write about 1989 in the context of political freedom is to go the path of the Soviet Union.
  • Third, Xi Jinping’s China is at war with Christianity. China’s leaders are very aware of what happened in Poland in1989 when the Roman Catholic Church worked with political dissidents such as Lech Walesa to bring down the communist government of Poland.  China has thus been tightening its control over religion, especially Christianity.  Today there are well over 100 million Chinese Christians.  All but 36 million practice their faith outside government control.  By 2050, China could have nearly 250 million Christians.  Thus, Xi’s China has aggressively turned on the Christian church.  Some urban underground churches have been shut down.  Prominent Protestant pastors have received lengthy prison sentences.  The regime has also launched a nationwide campaign to eradicate unregistered churches.  Xi calls this policy “sinicization.”  His goal is to make religion “instruments of the Party.”  Some examples of this policy:
  1. Last year in Henan province, 10,000 Protestant churches were ordered shut, even though most were registered with the state. During 2018, more than 1 million Christians were threatened or persecuted and 5,000 arrested.
  2. Xi’s regulations also ban minors from entering churches and forbid Sunday schools and Bible camps. In churches, Christian symbols sometimes are being replaced with pictures of Xi.
  3. Police ordered facial-recognition cameras inside Zion, an unofficial megachurch in Beijing, prompting the pastor to close it. Catholic priests have reported being pressed to provide police with parishioners’ socioeconomic data.

China is pursuing a seemingly impossible future—permit a degree of economic freedom to its citizens but restrict any significant degree of political or religious freedom.  Xi seeks to control the narrative of China’s history and exert maximum control over the nation’s religious diversity, especially Christianity.  Xi seeks to maintain totalitarian control over Chinese society and culture.  His bet is that China’s citizens will embrace the economic and financial benefits of state capitalism but not want any degree of political or religious freedom.

The leaders of the US must understand both Russia and China.  They are very different nations but they are both challenging the US and both pose a real threat to world order and the national security of the US.

See Angela Stent in the Wall Street Journal (16 February 2019); Jeremy Page in the Wall Street Journal (1-2 June 2019); Charles Hutzler and Chun Han Wong in the Wall Street Journal (1-2 June 2019); and Nina Shea and Bob Fu in the Wall Street Journal (31 May 2019).

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