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Balkan Devlen: Wishful thinking is no substitute for strategy with China and Russia


Democracies around the world face an important new challenge with an authoritarian axis being formed around Russia and China.

The despotic regimes of Putin and Xi are increasingly acting in concert with each other — an alignment that can be seen in a range of policies, including on defence cooperation, subverting international norms and institutions, and on the question of cyber-governance and information security.

Given their hostility to universal human rights and democracy, their “Animal Farm” understanding of sovereignty — in which some countries are more sovereign than others and only major powers are truly sovereign — their desire to make the world safe for autocracy, and their increasingly revanchist policies, the Sino-Russian alignment poses a serious challenge to the rules-based international order and its defenders.

As I outlined in a recent paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Russia and China are strange bedfellows driven to one another by their shared neo-authoritarian ideology, obsession with regime security, and conviction that the West is in terminal decline.

Ideologically, both countries are led by strong men who believe in their own indispensability for promoting economic growth, protecting the regime, and advancing their national interests abroad. Here the personal fortunes of the leader are assumed to be one and the same with the national interest and thus any threat to Putin’s or Xi’s rule is perceived to be an existential threat to Russia or China.

Such regimes cannot tolerate dissent, at home or abroad. They are characterized by suppression of free speech, tight control of traditional and social media, repression against political and religious dissident groups, and especially in the case of PRC, a vast surveillance infrastructure that reaches every aspect of political and social life.

Russia and China share a common interest in undermining the status quo.

This shared neo-authoritarian ideology enables Putin and Xi to frame their common opposition to the rules-based international order and surmount the lingering suspicions between both countries dating back to the Cold War.

Russia and China share a common interest in undermining the status quo. They perceive the international order — underpinned by common rules, liberal values, and a near-hegemonic democratic superpower — as an inherent and existential threat to their respective ruling regime. The imperative of regime survival is crucial to understand the Sino-Russian alignment at the international level and makes the strategic partnership between Russia and China an enduring one.

The CCP — the clear dominant force in this emerging partnership — explicitly identifies values and norms such as liberal democracy, freedom of press, freedom of expression, and human rights as threats to its rule in its own internal documents. In the eyes of the CCP, the existence of a thriving democracy right across the strait in Taiwan increases the urgency of undermining the rules-based international order led by the world’s democracies.

Both China and Russia believe they need to speed up a shift in global power away from the West and restructure the international order to their liking. Engaging in subversion against the West is a crucial component of this strategy and a natural driver for their alignment.

The outgrowth of this strategy is a range of destabilizing activities, such as economic coercion, diplomatic belligerence, military threats, maritime bullying, territorial incursions, and more. Such heavy-handed tactics have defined Russia and China under their current leadership. Emboldened by one another, and in the absence of a coherent response from the West, the Sino-Russian partnership operates with greater abandon, coherence and nerve.

How should the West respond to this challenge? The worst choice is almost certainly what appears to be the present strategy: wait and see, hoping that the partnership will dissolve or that some dispute forces Xi and Putin to look in opposite directions. Yet wishful thinking is no substitute for strategy.

Another option is to pursue a wedge strategy. There are existing and potential differences between two countries on a number of fronts — from the growing power asymmetry that clearly favours China to their rivalry when it comes to both influence in Central Asia and arms sales. It is possible that Russia might, in this context, be dissuaded from supporting a partnership with China that has left Russia as the junior partner. After all, no one wants to be the horse, and everyone wants to be the rider.

Defence-spending laggards like Canada need to start paying their fair share into collective defence.

However, it is important not to overstate these otherwise modest disagreements. And the tensions that come with a power imbalance pale in comparison to the drivers of the relationship between Russia and China. Both countries realize they each have more to gain in their continued cooperation. Besides, Russia would need to be at least somewhat accommodating to the West for this wedge strategy to succeed. And Moscow has proven time and time again to be precisely the opposite of anything the West might describe as “cooperative.”

Instead of attempting to play the two authoritarian regimes off one another, we should bank on a much more solid strategy of solidarity and deterrence. Only by being able to confront, stand up to, and ultimately push back against the dual threats of a Sino-Russian alignment can we dissuade such a power bloc from undermining the rules-based international order. We must be resolute and firm in communicating that the goals of these authoritarian partners cannot be accomplished even through their cooperation, and thus encourage both countries to engage in rule-abiding behaviour.

To do this requires more than idle words. We must instead develop a coordinated, multilayered and multilateral strategy. On one hand, the U.S .needs to take the lead in pushing back against Russia and China, as only the U.S. has the assets and indeed power to do so successfully. On the other hand, the West and other democratic partners should coordinate in the dual-containment of this authoritarian axis. That will help capitalize on the individual strengths of each democratic partner and amplify each other’s capabilities across domains and geographies.

To coordinate these efforts requires an institutional structure — an “alliance of democracies” to coordinate efforts among our partners and defend international institutions will be imperative for this effort to succeed. This also means that our values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights should be reaffirmed and defended without apology, as these values ultimately underpin our shared interests. And ultimately, we must retain a defence advantage over these authoritarian powers. This means defence-spending laggards like Canada need to start paying their fair share into collective defence.

As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, Canada and its allies and partners need to have a clear-eyed view of the challenge posed by this authoritarian axis. The future of the rules-based international order, liberal democracy, and individual rights and freedoms depends on how well we confront this task. It’s time that democracies join together to fight back.

Janice Stein: Canada needs to walk and chew gum when it comes to China


President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said that Gerald Ford was so dumb that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Canada will have to do both as it crafts a China strategy in the shadow of the growing competition between the United States and China.

The relationship between the United States and China will be the scaffolding of the international order that emerges from the ashes of two global events that bookended the last decade — the global financial crisis and the pandemic. These last ten years have played to the relative advantage of China — a financial crisis that started in the United States and went global, and a global pandemic that started in China and was then horribly mismanaged in the United States. American own goals at the beginning and the end of a decade enabled China to gain rapidly on the United States. But the game is far from over.

The United States has never faced a challenge like the one it faces now from China. The analogy to the “cold war” with the Soviet Union is a poor fit because the Soviet and American economies were barely connected. The two powers competed intensely, but on a narrow band of security and ideological issues. The broad competition between China and the United States is of an entirely different order.

China is a significant economic competitor. Its economy is growing fast in the part of the world that is growing the fastest. China’s economy is already larger than that of the United States in purchasing parity power and will likely overtake the American economy sometime in the next 15 years. In this last decade, China has become the largest trading partner of 100 countries, while the United States is the largest trading partner for only half as many. Beijing has also invested trillions of dollars in infrastructure all over the world through its Belt and Road initiative and an equivalent amount in building digital infrastructure powered by its national champion, Huawei.

In this past decade, China has emerged as an innovator and a leader in many of the technologies that will shape the next twenty years. Its companies — Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei — now compete with the best of U.S. companies and lead in digital payments and integrated platforms. China currently lags badly in semiconductors, but is investing massively in robotics, biotechnology, quantum computing, and advanced artificial intelligence. In many of these next-generation technologies, China is already a formidable rival to the United States.

The gifts of this last decade enabled China to close the gap with the United States much more quickly than its leaders expected. Beijing nevertheless faces big challenges that can get in the way of its ambitious plans. Its population is aging rapidly and will peak in the next few years. Its population could shrink by half a billion over the next several decades and the number of workers per retiree is expected to decline dramatically. All of this leads to reduced productivity and slower growth at a time when China’s debt is now over 300 percent of GDP. At the National People’s Congress last month, Xi Jinping promised annual growth of around 6 percent, a sharp reduction from the sizzling growth of the last several decades.

At home, China is cracking down harshly on even mild dissent and is engaging in genocidal actions against its Uighur population. It has suppressed the remnants of democracy in Hong Kong and ratcheted up the pressure on Taiwan.

China is also increasing its defense spending more quickly than its GDP is projected to grow as it tries to establish itself as the undisputed hegemon of Asia. It has asserted expansive rights in the South and East China Seas, accelerated its border skirmishes with India, and grown more strident in its dealings with Australia and Canada. This far more assertive posture is consistent with Xi Jinping’s conclusion that China is rising and the United States is in decline.

Ottawa may have preferences, but little in the way of meaningful choice.

A newly assertive and dynamic China challenging the United States head-on is uncharted waters for the United States and its closest allies. The Biden Administration has yet to define its strategy toward China as it rebalances from the shambolic Trump presidency. What strategy it ultimately chooses will be of enormous consequence for Canada.

Canada will have to choose between two broad strategies.

In a world where globalization is retreating, supply chains are shortening, and resilience has become more important than efficient just-in-time delivery, Canada is more dependent on access to the U.S. economy than it ever has been. It is conceivable that this new world order will push us over the line into an integrated North American economy. We can already hear rumblings in discussions of integrated markets for electric vehicles, vaccines, and essential goods. In this world, Canada contracts out its China policy to Washington and is first in to Biden’s coalition of willing democrats. If the Biden Administration opts for a hybrid of containment and collaboration, so much the better. That option leaves the door open for progress on climate change, global health governance, and modernization of the trading system, all issues that matter to Canadians. If it opts for confrontation, so be it. In an increasingly integrated North American economy, Canada has little choice but to get in line with whatever strategy the United States chooses. Ottawa may have preferences, but little in the way of meaningful choice.

At the other end of the spectrum, Canada continues to plead for exemptions from U.S. protectionism and does what it absolutely must do but no more to accommodate the United States. Ottawa then makes a sustained effort to grow its trade with China and other Asian markets. It walks softly and carries a small stick, all in the name of the preservation of the autonomy Canada still has in a world that is regionalizing. Ottawa stays out of the headlights of the U.S.-China competition and reaps marginal advantage whenever it can.

Neither strategy is cost free. That Canadian public opinion has swung massively against China is an important constraint on the second option, at least for the short-term. Nor will Canadians cheer the creation of truly integrated North American markets and the contracting out of policy. That is a constraint on the first option.

Likely then, our government will mix and match, cherry picking the elements from each that best promote Canadian interests and leave Canada some voice on values. Whatever the mix and match, Ottawa will do far better acting in concert with others than alone.

As a perennial pragmatist, Canada will have to be extraordinarily proficient at walking and chewing gum at the same time.