Superpower showdown


RUSSIA and China, the two rivals to US superpower status have both just reelected their presidents. Washington’s relationship with Moscow and Beijing could well now be influenced by a resurgent Sino-Russian friendship, but whether this could amount to the apparent anti-US partnership of Communist days is another matter.

At one level, there is no doubt that their interests do indeed coincide. Both countries want to expand their strategic reach. In the case of Russia it is a reassertion of its power and influence in Eastern Europe in the face of what the Kremlin sees as the threat from the US-led NATO alliance. NATO has expanded eastwards to include all the countries that were formerly members of the old Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. The confrontation over Ukraine — the seizure of Crimea and the fostering, arming and military support for the revolt by ethnic Russian Ukrainians — is part of President Vladimir Putin’s domestically popular pushback against Washington. NATO may protest as much as it likes that it is a purely defensive alliance but that has never been the way that it looked from the Kremlin. A decade ago advancing American influence was checked successfully in Georgia in the brief 2008 war during which Russia seized two important provinces and the Georgian government abandoned plans to host big US military bases.

China likewise is seeking, for the first time in centuries, to claim its hegemony in Asia where, since the defeat of Japan in the World War II, US arms and influence have long been dominant.

Moscow and Beijing have also established key links whereby the Chinese will buy Russian oil and gas. But this deal underlines the key difference between the two states. For all its industrial base, Russia’s main international income is from energy sales. China’s seemingly infinite demand for power arises from its role as a leading world manufacturer. China makes everything. Russia makes not a lot. China is extremely rich. Russia is not.

And whatever the outward appearances, their political systems are actually different. The recent changes to China’s constitution may have cleared the way for Xi Jinping to be president for life if he so desires, but Xi sits at the top of a considerable Communist party machine to which ultimately he will always be responsible. Putin’s political machine is effectively Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, the successor to the feared KGB of which he was once a member.

Both countries are tough against dissent. Whereas Putin’s political opponents, at home and abroad, have a habit of ending up dead, in China dissidents tend to be sent to jail. Both Moscow and Beijing have centralized power. However, with the arguable exception of Vladivostok in the country’s Far East and Chechnya, Russia has never been threatened with breakup whereas throughout China’s history, Beijing’s primacy has often been challenged by powerful regional warlords.

None of these differences is likely to impact a closer alliance between the two countries, even if it is probable Beijing will be the senior partner, largely dictating terms. How quickly this relationship develops will depend crucially on how Beijing’s trade confrontation with President Donald Trump pans out. China wants to usurp America’s superpower role on the back of its extraordinary economic power. Looked at in these terms, the already heavily-sanctioned Russia is in no such position to compete against Washington.