Global Pairings

China’s Curious Choice to Stand with Russia

In contrast to Putin, President Xi at least seems focused on the long game for his country. But why is Xi then supporting Putin’s win-today, lose-thereafter venture?

Takeaways


  • China's support for Putin is a real puzzle. It makes a little sense only in the very broad context of Xi's interest in supporting authoritarian government around the world.
  • China is far better off surrounded by fumbling democracies than by more autocratic states like Russia.
  • China’s "peaceful rise" (a now-discarded CPC slogan) was powered by a sea of democracies around the world willing to open their markets and lending a hand in generating economic growth.
  • The three decades from the end of the Middle East oil crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 were not only the period of greatest modern economic growth in China. They were also the period of greatest democratic growth in the world.
  • For China’s leaders, the big trouble with autocrats (like Putin) is that their armies and economies follow their whims, and their whims are unstable. That is not a recipe for economic success.
  • “Whole-process people's democracy” – of the autocratic sort President Xi is cheering on in Russia – certainly isn’t near the top 100 items on Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
  • Beyond neo-imperialist schemes, Putin’s life is devoted to organizing a hyper-feudalist kleptocracy in Russia, the people – or the fools – be damned.
  • The point about democracies is that they will trade and share prosperity with anyone who doesn’t hurt them. This has been China’s consistent understanding of the West after Mao’s death.

[Note to journalists: You may quote from this text, provided you mention the name of the author and reference it as a new Strategic Assessment Memo (SAM) published by the Global Ideas Center in Berlin on The Globalist.]

In early March of this year, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s actions. In justifying its move, Beijing cited the principle of “indivisible security” which Russia had given as a pretext for its attack.

This principle is defined vaguely as the indivisibility of each state’s internal and external security interests. In reality, it means whatever each state wants it to mean at any given moment.

Putin’s impulsiveness and the costs

No matter what Putin’s stated reasons are for undertaking an occupation of the southern tier of Ukraine in addition to the Donbas, the course of action he has chosen promises decades of guerilla warfare for Russia.

Add to that the miserable state of his troops, and Putin’s choice starts looking like a matter only empirical psychology could investigate.

China’s long game?

In contrast to Putin, President Xi at least seems focused on the long game for China. But if that’s really so, why is Xi supporting Putin’s win-today, lose-thereafter venture?

Let’s take one tempting answer off the table. Xi needs no Ukraine precedent for any action China takes in Taiwan.

To begin with, Chinese diplomats would probably object strongly to any parallel. They would insist that Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China might bear some similarity to Kamchatka’s with the Russian state – but none to Ukraine.

China’s support is a real puzzle

Beyond Taiwan, however, China’s support for Putin’s course of action is a real puzzle. It makes a little sense only in the very broad context of Xi’s interest in supporting authoritarian government around the world.

In December 2021, for example, China’s Foreign Ministry released a 23-page paper titled China: Democracy that Works.

It argues for “whole-process people’s democracy.” As National Public Radio explains, this is a term to describe governments that are dedicated to the welfare of their citizens after elections – and not just before them.

The CPC’s results-oriented legacy

The way to judge this kind of democracy, apparently, is by its results. The Communist Party of China (CPC) passes the test because it has lifted more people out of poverty than any other.

It may be a self-serving, even cynical argument, but this much at least makes sense. The 170 trillion-yuan question is why China wants Chinese-style democracies – in other words, autarkies – around it.

Better off with fumbling democracies

China is far better off surrounded by fumbling democracies than by more autocratic states like Russia.

After all, the very economic results that the CPC cites to justify its form of government speak for themselves: 30 years of 10% average annual economic growth following the 1978 reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

The most distinctive component in China’s approach of “rising peacefully” (a now-discarded CPC slogan) was not anything unprecedented over the centuries and dynasties in or about China. Rather, it was a sea of democracies around the world willing to open their markets and lending a hand in generating economic growth.

Link between China’s growth and democracies’ growth

It is no coincidence that the three decades from the end of the Middle East oil crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 were not only the period of greatest modern economic growth in China. They were also the period of greatest democratic growth in the world.

Which way does the causation flow?

What is the relationship between economic growth in China and democratic growth in the world? It is not remotely plausible to credit the Chinese economy with the flowering of democracy in, say, Peru, Ghana and Indonesia.

It makes plenty of sense, however, to thank the democracies of that period for China’s ability to export its way to becoming a middle-income country and the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.

Autocrats kill China’s economy

Imagine, on the other hand, a world where leaders like Putin run India, the United States, Indonesia, Japan and Brazil. (Come to think of it, that’s not so hard to imagine any more.)

The trouble with autocrats is that their armies and economies follow their whims, and their whims are unstable. That is not a recipe for economic success.

Xi’s short-sightedness

“Whole-process people’s democracy” – of the autocratic sort President Xi is cheering on in Russia – certainly isn’t near the top 100 items on Vladimir Putin’s agenda.

Beyond neo-imperialist schemes, Putin’s life is devoted to organizing a hyper-feudalist kleptocracy in Russia, the people – or the fools – be damned. Even though Putin’s Russia may become an energy source for China, it will never be a growth engine.

As Xi will learn the hard way, to the contrary, losing the support of democracies around the world as markets will be bad for the Chinese people. And bad not just for the Chinese people. It’s bad also for the CPC leadership. To justify its legitimacy and its existence, Xi and the CPC must advance the people’s welfare.

A return to Mao’s economic doctrines?

Apologists for Xi might say the democracies have turned away from Xi. Viewed from that vantage point, the Chinese leader is just reacting to their jealous efforts to keep China down. He knows the democracies won’t help in the future as they have in the past.

And yet, that interpretation rings hollow. The point about democracies is that they will trade and share prosperity with anyone who doesn’t hurt them. This has been China’s consistent understanding of the West after Mao’s death.

Conclusion

Xi is needlessly throwing away a crucial ingredient of his people’s continuing prosperity. He should be grateful for the struggling democracies around him.

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About David Apgar

David Apgar is the author of the book "Risk Intelligence: Learning to Manage What We Don’t Know."

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