Another Notch of Danger
Terry H. Schwadron
March 24, 2023
From all that we’re hearing, the world turned another notch more dangerous this week as Chinese leader Xi Jinping was embraced in Moscow by Vladimir Putin — a visual celebration of two huge autocracies finding common ground.
Though this summit did not result in any decision for China to help Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine with specific lethal military aid, there is nothing good about seeing the prospects of rosier economic and diplomatic linkage between America’s two biggest global rivals.
Through bipartisan White Houses over decades, it has been a mainstay of American foreign policy to separate concerns over China and its economic power from worries about Russia’s military aggressiveness. Seeing the two leaders standing together at this moment shakes that longtime strategy and raises a load of questions for how we organize our own thinking and planning beyond the current war in Europe.
China and Russia each clearly are strengthening their regional alliances and are active in using their own foreign outreach policies to attract new friends in the Middle East and in Africa. Along the way, Putin has managed a savage war that is earning him war crimes charges and Xi has established that human rights have little value in China and that has little interest in cooperating on international efforts towards solving climate or covid.
Their partnership suggests economic power and military adventurism well beyond traditional “spheres of influence,” and causing trouble for the United States and its allies.
What struck me — although I, like you, feel powerless in influencing international relations — was the notion that this is happening as Republicans increasingly are turning to international isolationism, other than throwing regular verbal bombs at one or the other rival countries. As Democrats generally seem interested in keeping lines of communication open even with the rivals, Republicans see that as “weakness.”
Attractive as it is to push these foreign policy debates aside, it is increasingly clear that global frictions have a direct effect on our daily lives, whether through consumer prices and jobs, the use of social media and the threat of cyber hacking or in the growing number of military brushes we are seeing and the health of democracy altogether.
What We Learned
The only immediate takeaway was that this summit was at once rewarding for Xi and Putin individually and problematic for the American-led alliance. The imagery projected strength for America’s foes and the promise of a far more challenging set of national security issues for our own.
Once again, there is nothing here that is curable by one-line slogans from presidential candidates. Everything about the subjects that the two leaders took on — deepened economic and energy cooperation, for example — suggest prospects for more strategic opposition to the U.S. across several fronts from technology to manufacturing to military matters.
Continued independence for Taiwan looks increasingly like continued independence for Moldova and other former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. There was an odor from the summit that these two could be carving up the world as we know it.
In the current Ukraine war, Xi managed to project an image of a world-class referee with elements of a peace plan that apparently would reward Russia by freezing some territorial gains in Ukraine. There was no reported progress towards a settlement, but Xi was holding back on re-arming Russia while looking for a chance to persuade Ukraine to accept a partial loss as a practical outcome. Clearly, Ukraine is not going to accept that, and we can be apprehensive about a next step from China.
David Ignatius of The Washington Post sees another central message here: A strong China is bolstering a weakened Russia, just as it has shown success in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia or leadership with bringing more “neutral” countries of India and Brazil into their orbit.
In that light, what the summit really showed was an emergent Xi able to look beyond current economic rivalry with the United States to a much stronger position in the world in the future. “The idea that a vast swath of the world is dominated by a China that stands so resolutely against freedom and democracy is chilling. If this alliance succeeds, we will live in a darker world,” argues Ignatius.
What We Can Do
What we can do is demand of our own candidates for office something more than simplified slogans about foreign engagements.
Republican officeholders or broadcasters talking about prioritizing aid to East Palestine, Ohio by cutting out aid to Ukraine are just accepting a myopic vision of where America stands. The U.S. cities that are opposing all Chinese investment in knee-jerk fashion are reacting to emotion, not economic planning, The current congressional spate of anti-Chinese legislation raise questions about launching weapons before coming up with a strategy. Attacks on Hunter Biden’s dumb and unsuccessful business efforts as some kind of would-be explanation for Joe Biden’s foreign policies seem way wide of the mark.
The attempts to isolate Russia economically as part of Ukraine strategy will be offset by partnership with China and India, particularly as China increases purchases of Russian oil. The continuing confrontations over technological development and the mining of specialized minerals needed to create consumer technology will suffer in a world dominated by a China-Russia alliance. The national security issues arising from potentially cooperative efforts on artificial intelligence and cyber warfare is obvious.
Perhaps we can demand that arguing about who can use school bathrooms might not be our top election issue.