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Democracies vs. Autocracies – a new Cold War?

Democracies vs. Autocracies – a new Cold War?
©EPA-EFE/ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK   |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) clink glasses before the start of the fifth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 15 June 2019.

China and Russia increasingly converge in their approach to relations with the USA and the West, which has given rise to speculation about a possible military alliance. Worst-case scenario, Russia and China will engage in coordinated military strikes in areas of key interest for the two autocratic powers: Taiwan and Ukraine.

The USA’s nightmare: a possible Russia-China alliance

On November 23, Russia and China condemned the actions of the American army outside their borders. Through the voice of its army spokesman, Beijing referred to the USS Milius destroyer that went through the Taiwan Strait separating China from the autonomous region claimed by Beijing. Although the Pentagon said the passage breached no international regulations, China claims that “the action of the US side created security risks and undermined regional stability”, warning it would take all necessary measures to counter all threats and provocations and safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Using the same tone, Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, signaled movement of US troops, which he described as a threat, saying the USA is rehearsing a nuclear strike against Russia.

Both statements come amidst growing tensions between Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

Two conclusions follow. First, a possible Russian-Chinese military alliance is coming into shape, which for NATO and the Americans comes as no surprise. After all, China and Russia are two autocratic powers for whom human rights count for nothing, and who want to instate a new world order fashioned by totalitarian policies. Moreover, this summer, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said the increasingly friendly ties between Moscow and China are generating new threats for the Allies.

And second, Taiwan and Ukraine are placed on an equal footing from the perspective of China and Russia. I doubt there is a single strategist in the US administration right now who isn’t planning a US response for a possible simultaneous invasion of Ukraine and Taiwan.

What’s at stake for Taiwan: the global market for semiconductors and the Americans’ presence in Asia

The White House leader recently took part in four-hour videocall with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, considered the most extensive meeting the US official ever had since taking office. After some polite conversation, Taiwan was brought up, leading to an exchange of sharp rebukes. Chinese president, Xi Jinping, blamed the escalation of tension in the region on the repeated attempts of Taipei authorities to enlist Washington’s support for its push for independence, something which the USA is reluctant to recognize.

“Such moves are extremely dangerous. It’s like playing with fire. And whoever plays will fire will eventually get burned”, Jinping said.

In recent years, China’s relations with the USA have become increasingly contentious. The string of heated talks and actions undertaken by both sides were caused by policies regarding trade, technology, human rights and, last but not least, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On a number of occasions, Taiwan was the ball on the soccer field pitting the United States against China. Therefore, any request to safeguard the security of Taiwan, of maintaining the status quo or abandoning the island altogether cannot be brought up outside the US-China rivalry. Therefore, Joe Biden responded to Xi Jinping, saying that any unilateral change operated in the status or Taiwan or any attempt at undermining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will not please Washington.

Taiwan’s current political status is considered a diplomatic absurdity, and rightfully so, for reasons that have to do with the Chinese Civil War.

The democratic government in Taipei is recognized only by 17 countries, excluding the UN. The Americans broke ties at embassy level with the Taipei government in 1979, when they established fully-fledged diplomatic relations with China. US relations with Taipei remained, however, special, and in recent years have grown increasingly close. Taiwan is the USA’s 11th-largest trade partner. At global level, this island of 23 million inhabitants ranks 22nd in terms of economic growth. And one more detail of key importance: Taiwan is the most important link in the supply chain on Silicon Valley, given the major role it plays in the global manufacturing of semiconductors. All things considered, an annexation of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China would immediately turn China into the undisputed leader in the Pacific area. Furthermore, it would mean Beijing took absolute control of innovating technologies and would suspend crude-oil supplies to Japan and South Korea, thus isolating American military bases in the region, which would eventually become useless and shut down. Therefore, communist China’s dream of driving America out the region would come true. Over the years, democracy developed on the island, and seeing China DOES NOT observe its international commitments after the handover of Hong Kong, it’s no surprise the Taiwanese want to proclaim their independence. Right now, China has 1,600 warheads targeting the island. Xi Jinping promised a peaceful reunification, but it equally turned up the pressure, leading many to believe that all options still stand. The recent visit of a group of US congressmen to Taipei prompted China to make an unprecedented display of military strength in the Strait.

Russia’s “red lines”

An article written by Vladimir Putin himself this summer, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published on the Kremlin’s website, reviews the historical provinces that Russia wants to reclaim. “Russia was robbed”, Putin concludes in a paragraph that challenges the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders, arguing that modern-day Ukraine developed on territories that are historically Russian. “I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kiev simply does not need Donbas”, Vladimir Putin concludes. Ukraine is one of Russia’s red lines, that much is clear. But lately, the Kremlin leader is keen on reminding us that every week.

Putin made it crystal clear that he doesn’t want Ukraine to host elements of the MK41 missile systems (one of which was installed in Deveselu), which Russia claims can also be used to launch offensive Tomahawk cruise missiles.

In late November, as NATO and Kiev grew increasingly worried by the Russian military buildup close to Ukraine’s border, Putin warned: “Creating such threats [in Ukraine] would be red lines for us”, Putin said.

Non-interference in domestic affairs vs. human rights

Beyond official reactions to what they describe as threats to their national security, China and Russia also share an opposition (which both sides expressed publicly at times) against the coercive measures taken by the West in response to the non-observance of human rights and international legislation.

Everything (including criticism) is presented through the lens of a competition between the two superpowers, of an alleged Western expansionism that is using human rights to justify its most sacred principle – “non-interference in domestic affairs”. Hence, the systematic repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the northwest, or the restriction, to the point of elimination, of human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, are likely to continue without anyone being able to do something about it. Beijing will continue to say: “Stay out of our country’s business”. Accordingly, any opposition in Russia will be made an example of, such as dissidents Aleksandr Litivenko or Alexei Navalny, to name only the most publicized cases, or it will be eradicated by means of so-called free elections, which will deny Vladimir Putin’s real opponents any chance of entering the state Duma.

Economic problems that obstruct political and military ambitions

For Beijing, any support offered to Taiwan is a red line it won’t overlook too easily. Still, with the current pandemic, we might also consider an accelerated decline of China, which would force the authorities in Beijing to take a step back. The unfortunate virus that swept the entire planet has opened the eyes of major world corporations, which have already started relocating their production lines closer to home, in Europe. This will spell huge losses for China. Besides, the laws introduced by Xi Jinping by means of which he seeks to take control of the capital of large state-owned companies have pushed China’s largest real estate developer to the brink. There is no guarantee history won’t repeat itself. Such an imminent bankruptcy will have devastating effects on China’s financial system. This could also foil Xi Jinping’s ambitions of becoming the leading figure of Chinese communism. Russia’s economy doesn’t paint a rosy picture either. The Nord Stream 2 project is currently put on hold, and the fact that the European Union took a stand and is unwilling to give in to Russian gas blackmail has left a sizable dent in the already strained budget of the Russian Federation. The Russians are facing great difficulties right now, and the pandemic isn’t making things any easier. Unlike his Chinese counterpart, Putin has local oligarchs wrapped around his little finger. The red millionaires the Chinese leader wants to control may very well turn against him, and it wouldn’t be a first for China.

For the time being, China remains the world’s second-largest economy, and Xi Jinping has paved a way for remaining in office for the rest of his life.

As regards Russia, the situation is much more complex compared to China: the economy is not sufficiently diversified or adapted to 21st-century realities, whereas its revenue streams are largely represented by exports of raw materials and weapons. Additionally, Russia is also facing a demographic challenge, making shot- and long-term prospects a reason for concern. For the time being, much like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin seems determined to consolidate his hold over the regime and stay in power for life, which means that, in the short run, tensions between the world’s autocracies and democracies will continue to pile up, chances being they would lead to a new Cold War.


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  • On November 23, Russia and China condemned the actions of the American army outside their borders. Both statements come amidst growing tensions between Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Two conclusions follow. First, a possible Russian-Chinese military alliance is coming into shape, which for NATO and the Americans comes as no surprise. After all, China and Russia are two autocratic powers for whom human rights count for nothing, and who want to instate a new world order fashioned by totalitarian policies. Moreover, this summer, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said the increasingly friendly ties between Moscow and China are generating new threats for the Allies.
  • Taiwan is the most important link in the supply chain on Silicon Valley, given the major role it plays in the global manufacturing of semiconductors. All things considered, an annexation of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China would immediately turn China into the undisputed leader in the Pacific area. Furthermore, it would mean Beijing took absolute control of innovating technologies and would suspend crude-oil supplies to Japan and South Korea, thus isolating American military bases in the region, which would eventually become useless and shut down. Therefore, communist China’s dream of driving America out the region would come true.
  • An article written by Vladimir Putin himself this summer, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published on the Kremlin’s website, reviews the historical provinces that Russia wants to reclaim. “Russia was robbed”, Putin concludes in a paragraph that challenges the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders, arguing that modern-day Ukraine developed on territories that are historically Russian.
  • Beyond official reactions to what they describe as threats to their national security, China and Russia also share an opposition (which both sides expressed publicly at times) against the coercive measures taken by the West in response to the non-observance of human rights and international legislation. Everything (including criticism) is presented through the lens of a competition between the two superpowers, of an alleged Western expansionism that is using human rights to justify its most sacred principle – “non-interference in domestic affairs”.
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