The Geopolitical Olympics
How China rules the world (or at least Russia)
Before the Olympics, China protested against diplomatic boycotts by democratic countries, calling them a politicization of the event. This is odd, given that China is using the Olympics to announce how it plans to run the world.
One leader who did arrive in Beijing, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, certainly had political purposes in mind. On the day reserved for the opening ceremony, he held a summit meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. It produced a statement describing a new world order with Beijing (and Moscow) in control.
In the statement, each side endorsed the other's worldview. China approved the Russian effort to establish a "just multipolar system of international relations." Russia blessed the far grander Chinese notion of a "community of common destiny for mankind." All that is clear about this common destiny is that it involves the defeat of the United States and the European Union.
The statement is very much a twenty-first century document: it contains no positive content, only critique of others. It replicates, on the scale of the world, what individual authoritarians do in their own countries: relativize the values of others, while providing no substitute. Thus "universal human rights" are endorsed, but only in the mocking sense that they must be adapted to the particularities of countries, as understood by their dictators. Democracy is endorsed, in the sense that every dictatorship is actually a democracy, because everywhere people have some relationship to their government. And, we are reassured, the Chinese and the Russians like things the way they are, and believe that their countries are democratic.
It is also clear that China (with some Russian assistance) is to be in charge after the Americans and Europeans are brought to heel. In a passage that is worth pondering, Beijing and Moscow "reaffirm that the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era." Cold war alliances provide an interesting point of reference. The main Soviet cold war alliance was the Warsaw Pact, used by Moscow to invade its ally Czechoslovakia in 1968. What does it mean to be superior to that? That this time bigger countries get invaded by their allies?
The summit and the statement (which I am citing according to the Kremlin presentation) are meant to be seen as triumphs of Russian diplomacy. This is not how the situation appears from a distance. Russia gets its talking points, but China defines the "common destiny for mankind," which presumably includes the destiny of its northern neighbor. The claim that "friendship between the two States has no limits" pungently recalls the hyperbolic language of Stalinism. Frankly, if I were Russian, I would hope that were some limits to friendship with China, such as for example the Russian-Chinese border. It was after all in the name of the friendship of the peoples that communist countries invaded one another.
In the West, we tend to speak of Putin as a strategic genius, with a certain undertone of admiration for the authority a dictator can wield in international affairs. But whatever talents Putin might possess, and they are indeed considerable, he is not a strategist. Russia as a country is not threatened by Europe and North America. Russian land and resources are not of great interest to Germans and Americans. They are, however, very much of interest to China, which is Russia's most important neighbor: that Chinese-Russian border is more than four thousand kilometers long. China already invests more in Siberia than Russia itself does.
The long-term strategic interest of Russia lies in keeping a balance between West and East, so as to be able to pivot from one to the other as necessary. It is China's interest to pull Russia so far in its direction that Russia cannot exercise leverage by moving back towards the West. Putin's foreign policy is thus a gift to China, because it makes equilibrium very difficult. By invading Ukraine in 2014, Putin pushed Russia away from the West and towards the East. By threatening to invade Ukraine again in 2022, Putin is denying his country any Western option for the foreseeable future. The grandiose language of the statement is meant to cover this fundamental error.
Naturally, China is happy to speak of ruling the world together with Russia. The generous words, so appealing to fragile egos in Moscow, cost the Chinese nothing. The advantages that Russia brings to China are those of a client state. Putin arrived in Beijing with yet another deal for natural gas: Russia is a supplier of raw materials to a Chinese economy that is about ten times larger than its own. Russia also helps China with the shortsighted exuberance by which it challenges the United States and the European Union. Russia volunteers to take the punishment for what is, in the end, China's cause.
In the statement, China offers no direct support of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Its diplomats are perhaps too wise for any such open bellicosity. But if Russia does attack Ukraine again, the main winner will be China. Putin can enjoy the adrenaline boost of doing something dramatic, but the net result will be pinning his country to Beijing for a generation. It does say a lot about the relationship between the two countries that, whatever Russia may now do, it will have done so after Putin flew to Beijing to consult with Xi.
As a strategy for Russia as a country, riding Chinese coattails is senseless. But as a tactic for an oligarchic regime to stay in power, it makes perfect sense. Putin may be inviting China to dominate Russia, but he knows that China will do so tactfully. Xi will never criticize his methods of rule. In comically sinister passages, Beijing and Moscow congratulate each other on being the real democracies that really understand human rights. What is meant is that dictators have the human right to refer to their countries as democracies.
They "note that Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy," which is just not true. What seems to be meant is that Russia and China are democratic because… they are not democratic. The argument runs like this. Most of the world is not democratic, but authoritarian. It is thus authoritarianism that is democratic, since authoritarians rule more people than do elected leaders. It is therefore wrong for the actual democrats to speak of democracy, since they are just "actors representing but the minority on the international scale."
And so, in the Orwellian finale, "democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States." Democracy is not a matter of whether you are a citizen of those "limited number of States" where your vote actually matters. If democratic countries speaks about democracy, these are simply "attempts at hegemony." If people protest because they would like to vote, or would like for their votes to be counted, these are simply "colour revolutions," which Russia and China agree to oppose.
The surreal claim that everything is democratic is heartening in a certain way. It shows how robust the value of democracy is, even in troubled times. In the twentieth century, communist regimes likewise could not concede the language of democracy. Thus East Germany was officially the "German Democratic Republic," and the other communist regimes referred to themselves as "people's democracies." North Korea to this day is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It was to be understood that “people’s republics” were superior to "bourgeois democracies," where people voted and the votes counted. In the end, it usually turns out that people like to vote. And, one suspects, people in Russia and China today would also like to have their votes counted. If their leaders are promising democracy, then that is a natural demand.
In their post-modern way, Russian and Chinese leaders are pulling on the same thread as fallen communist regimes. Even as they offer nothing more to the world than the absence of democracy, they cannot concede the language of democracy. Their tactic is to make this language meaningless. Which means that the best way to oppose them is to make it meaningful.