The gamble taken by Xi Jinping in supporting Vladimir Putin in his quest for empire is turning against China.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February last, Xi Jinping has given unfailing support to Vladimir Putin as part of the “unlimited friendship” cooperation agreement of 4th February 2022. China has refused to apply international sanctions, has abstained during the UN vote, and has echoed Moscow’s narrative, calling NATO to blame for the war. Thus the Ukraine war has become a test bench for the strategic direction that authoritarian regimes are taking – their aim being to achieve a post-democratic and post-Western world.
Banking on a quick victory by Russia, Xi Jinping intended to make China the real victor in the conflict. The coalition between the two authoritarian regimes was intended to record a decisive success and mark a new step forward, at the cost of Russia’s increased dependency on China because of the inevitable international sanctions. The Western democracies were supposed to have been humiliated and given more proof of their powerlessness and division when faced by armed forces. The annexation of Ukraine by Russia was to be an excellent dress rehearsal for the annexation of Taiwan by China.
But history is never written in advance, particularly when it’s a question of a war that begins at a precise date, but no one knows when or how it will end. The cult of personality and the absence of countervailing powers – features of 21st century autocracies – have induced them into error.
For Russia, its attack on Ukraine has been a failure on four fronts: military, economic, diplomatic, and moral. And this failure is having a knock-on effect on China, amplifying many of its problems in a year when the 20th Communist Party Congress is due to grant Xi Jinping a third term of office – a consecration of his power. As allies, joined in their hatred of democracy and resentment of the West, China and Russia do not, however, carry the same weight. Russia is a power in decline from a demographic, economic and technological point of view. It is engaged in an autarkic strategy of gaining territory by the systematic use of military force. China is a rising power which has built its rise on globalization, under the control of a Communist Party whose legitimacy is founded on the reunification of the Chinese nation as well as the ability to ensure economic stability and development.
The gamble taken by Xi Jinping in supporting Vladimir Putin in his quest for empire is turning against China, which has been destabilized by geopolitical deflagration and the economic crisis caused by the Ukraine war.
First of all, Beijing finds itself confronted by the predicament caused by its zero Covid strategy for the Omicron variant, and by the refusal of elderly people to be vaccinated. These factors forced the lockdown of 13 million inhabitants of Shenzhen and 26 million inhabitants of Shanghai, with devastating effects on production and supply chains. The number of births plummeted to 10.62 million in 2021 as against 14.65 million in 2019 for a total population of 1.41 billion, thereby speeding up the ageing of the population and curbing potential growth.
In the short term, the real estate crash is continuing. The fact that the state has taken back ideological and regulatory control of the finance, technology and private teaching sectors has caused a sharp fall in business activity and innovation. The current fall in business activity worldwide, together with the explosion of energy and food prices, are seriously affecting an economy that is in full-blown slowdown. In the longer term, the break-up of globalization raises doubts about the model of development through exports that was the force behind China’s forty years of success.
China’s support for Russia is also further degrading its image, as are its ambitions for power and its desire to expand to Taiwan and the China Sea. Open confrontation with the democracies – as seen in the icy atmosphere of the EU summit – brings an extremely high economic, social and diplomatic cost. The presumption that Europe is declining and disunited has been belied by reactions to Russian aggression. And, even if its situation is very different, Ukraine is providing Taiwan with useful lessons on the strategy and the means to be used in mobilizing a democratic people in resisting attack from an authoritarian empire.
Therefore, Xi Jinping’s support of Vladimir Putin is widening two gaps: the gap between the strategic visions and objectives of China and those of Russia, and the gap between the line taken by Xi Jinping and the basic interests of China.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 11th April 2022)