SPECIAL 2022: West to Face New Russia-China Challenge – By Mihir Bose

There is no point looking anywhere else in Europe for leaders who could fashion a strategy to cope with this new Russian-Chinese alliance. Certainly not Britain. Boris Johnson may be a great Greek scholar, but his state craft has never amounted to much ….. writes Mihir Bose

In many ways the most intriguing feature of 2022 maybe the way the Russian-Chinese relationship develops and how the west adapts to it. It was the split between them in the 60s that opened the door for America, in particular Richard Nixon, to finally acknowledge that mainland China was communist, a decision which led to major geo political changes and in the long run was one of the factors among many that helped contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union. Now these two powers coming together poses fresh and unexpected challenges for America and the western allies and their response suggests they do not quite how to measure up to this new alliance.

Of course this alliance is nothing like the one that was forged when Mao marched his army into Beijing and proclaimed the Peoples Republic of China. Then belief in Marxist-Leninism united the two countries. Mao, while believing in his own version of communism, also saw Russia as the mother land of communism from which he could draw inspiration. Stalin, of course, did not care much for Mao. He kept Mao waiting when the Chinese leader came to Moscow after assuming power and even had Mao’s stool examined to try and work out his characteristics. This was not only because Stalin was intensely suspicious but because, contrary to the communist propaganda that was spewed out for years, he was a racist who saw all non-whites as inferior. But they were fellow communists and the hostility of the US to Mao’s China, which it refused to recognise as a legitimate state for 25 years, denying it membership of the United Nations, helped cement the bounds.

All that has, of course, long gone. The present alliance is based on a shrewd appreciation by the two countries that they need to come together if they are realise their objectives and make sure they are not thwarted by the west. They are also coming together when both are in the middle of a dramatic change in their own societies. It may be almost a quarter of a century since Russia renounced communism but Vladmir Putin’s regime continues its march down the authoritarian avenue combining communist and Tsarist Russia elements of state control. It is not without significance that just after Christmas Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial, the country’s most prominent rights group, which chronicled Stalin-era purges and symbolised the post-Soviet democratisation.

In Putin’s Russia where Stalin is seen as a hero there is no place for those who seek to tell the truth about what happened during those terrible decades. But while Putin may like some of the tools of communism to keep control he is no communist. That is not the case with his new found Chinese friend.

President XI , once a cave-dwelling outcast, who as a fifteen year old had been exiled in 1969 to the once-desolate village of Liangjiahe, in North-West China, has made no secret of the fact that he is a Marxist and a Leninist. He believes in exercising absolute power and in the Chinese communist party controlling practically all areas of Chinese life. And this marks a huge change from the way China has developed since Deng Xiaopong turned China round and laid the foundations for making China the world power it has become.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Brasilia, Brazil, Nov. 13, 2019. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/IANS)

Deng’s philosophy was based on a very clever strategy of making sure the communist party retrained control, yet the people had as much freedom as possible. In effect what this meant was that in their economic life people were allowed to make money and indeed become very rich capitalists as many of them did in the years that followed. However, control of the state remained in the hands of the communist party. This was the trick that Michael Gorbachev missed. He brought freedom to Russia but in the process had to abandon communism and indeed the Soviet empire having to set free many of the colonies it had. Deng avoided any such thing.

Xi may have been brought up in Deng’s liberal regime but his direction is to move China from the market economy that Deng created to a command economy with the state intervening in the private lives of individuals. So, in order to control the video-games industry children are allowed one hour online only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Putin and Xi in a certain sense share a common goal. Putin has made no secret of the fact that he regrets that Gorbachev’s reforms led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia losing control of many countries once part of the Soviet empire. His foreign policy initiatives are clearly designed to re-establish the old Soviet Empire, or at least once again exercise control over countries that he feels belong to the Russian orbit and should never have been allowed to go free.

Xi’s mission is to rejuvenate China and restore the country to a mythical status, one it had until the 18th century, when it was the leading country in the world and people paid homage to the Chinese emperor. Then came its century of shame, as the Chinese put it, humiliation at the hands of the British Empire. If for Putin going back to the lost past means trying to bring Ukraine to heel then for Xi Taiwan and many other parts of south Asia should kowtow to the new China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping inside a house boat, in Wuhan. (Photo IANS_PIB)

For the west all this anathema. But apart from making pious noises there is little it can do. It can only watch as Putin bullies countries bordering Russia. Nor can it do much as China extends its arc far beyond its traditional borders, as far as Sri Lanka. Nor can it do anything to stop China behaving in Africa in the style that the old Europeans, who plundered what they called the dark continent, would have immediately recognised. Indeed, if someone of them were around they would immediately claim that China was following their white exploration play book. As with Putin the west can do nothing about this. It can try and rein in some Chinese companies, but it cannot curb the expansion of the Chinese state both within China and abroad.

All this is not helped by the fact that we have never had such poor leadership in the west. Joe Biden may have beaten Trump, but he has proved such a failure that not only will the Democrats lose the midterm elections due in 2022 but it is very likely he, or whoever the Democrats nominate, will face a resurgent Trump in 2024 and this time suffer a defeat.

There is no point looking anywhere else in Europe for leaders who could fashion a strategy to cope with this new Russian-Chinese alliance. Certainly not Britain. Boris Johnson may be a great Greek scholar, but his state craft has never amounted to much. He was, probably, the worst foreign secretary this country has had and in any case much of 2022 will be for him a battle to make sure he holds on to No 10.

I believe he will. The Conservatives are a ruthless political party who have no compunction in removing a leader who looks like losing an election. But I doubt if 2022 will see Boris fall. He can still perform a good pantomime act and that is likely to carry him through for another year. If by then he is still, as Dominic Cummings pictured him, a shopping trolley out of control then it might be a different story.

(Mihir Bose is for Sport Editor of BBC. His latest book is Narendra Modi, the Yogi of Populism. @mihirbose)

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