By Geoff Dyer, Financial Times, published August 27 2008
August 8 has already been pencilled in by some as a turning point in modern history, the day that authoritarianism stood up as a credible force for the first time since the end of the cold war. Television producers did not know where to look. On one screen Chinese drummers were launching the hi-tech opening extravaganza of the Olympics, while on another Russian tanks were filing into Georgian territory.
Each event seemed to be a snub to the idea of the inevitable advance of liberal democracy – Russia with its re-discovered military muscle and China celebrating its mixture of dynamism and political control. Like so many big narratives, however, the story about the rise of the new authoritarians leaves out a lot of important detail. While Russia has spent the past decade becoming more authoritarian, China has been slowly moving in the opposite direction – even if it took a lurch backwards in the run-up to the Olympics.
The story also misses how the actions of one authoritarian regime might affect the attitudes of the other, which is very much the case with Russia’s incursion into Georgia. At the start of the conflict, China was probably not too unhappy. But with Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the attitude is likely to shift. If Russia ramps up the pressure much further, it could actually push China closer to the US.
China has said little about the conflict, but a low-level confrontation in Georgia that pits Russia against the US helps China’s short-term interests rather well. China has been a backhand beneficiary of the “war on terror” – George W. Bush entered office nearly eight years ago promising to be much tougher on China, but since the attacks of September 11 2001, his attention has been elsewhere. Yet Beijing realises that the focus on Islamic extremism could soon wane. With the US economy slumping and China becoming the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, Chinese diplomats are worried that different groups in the US will join forces to slam China. So if Russia returns to being the US’s pin-up villain, that suits Beijing just fine.
Chinese leaders will not be losing any sleep about Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, either. Beijing’s autocrats were deeply disturbed by the so-called “colour revolutions” in eastern Europe and central Asia this decade and launched a clampdown on non-governmental organisations working in China, fearing they could be agitating for political reform. Mr Saakashvili is the western-educated product of a colour revolution who is lauded by Washington neo-conservatives as a warrior in the battle for democracy. If he is toppled, Beijing will not mourn his departure.
There could be other strategic gains, too. Europe has long been eyeing more oil and gas deals with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, where China also has significant investments. If instability in the Caucasus scares off European investors, that could create more space for the Chinese. It also does not hurt China if Europe and the US find themselves bickering over how to address the new Russian threat.
But all these considerations are based on the assumption of a low-level stand-off that does not escalate. If Russia pursues its claims more aggressively, the calculations in Beijing will start to change.
China’s economic success is increasingly fuelled by huge imports of oil and gas that are only going to get larger. Beijing, therefore, does not want to see Russian aggression browbeat a region that is an important energy provider. Indeed, one reason China pushed for the creation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation – a regional security body that holds its annual meeting today – was to find a way to balance Russian influence in central Asia.
The biggest problem for China, however, is Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Independence for small break-away provinces is one of the few subjects that turn Chinese diplomats from cool-headed calculators of national self-interest into brittle ideologues. As the March turmoil in Tibet showed, China views questions of regional autonomy as a direct threat to the state. A surprising amount of Chinese time and energy still goes on trying to isolate the government of Taiwan while Chinese diplomats work overtime to denounce groups that promote cultural and political issues in Xinjiang, even if they have no connection whatsoever with terrorism. When Russia was battling to oppose independence for Kosovo, China was firmly on its side.
At the moment, Beijing can afford to keep a low profile, safe in the knowledge that the US will veto recognition of the two regions if it ever comes to the UN Security Council. But the last thing China wants is an escalated conflict, let alone a new cold war, that forces it to take sides.
In the early 1960s, a swathe of western analysts missed the Sino-Soviet split because they confused a shared belief in Marxism-Leninism for a lock-step partnership. Just because the two countries are now pursuing forms of authoritarian capitalism does not mean they are automatic bedfellows. China has moved closer to Russia in recent years, but there are clear limits to the alliance that Washington could exploit.