Democracy and separation of powers are in decline.
In many countries, individuals have taken all the power into their own hands. This is true not least of Russia and China. Vladimir Putin has used his power to invade Ukraine. Recently, Xi Jinping practised encircling Taiwan.
Could Xi be as willing to take risks as Putin?
Similarities between Putin and Xi
Putin and Xi have good personal chemistry and a close strategic partnership. During the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, they declared that their friendship was “limitless”. They are the same age; both will soon be 70. Putin came to power in 1999, Xi in 2012.
President Xi’s first foreign trip was to Moscow, where he claimed that China’s and Russia’s partnership was the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
In order to remain in power, both men have rejected rules designed to limit their terms in office. Russia is due for a presidential election in 2024. In 2018, Putin said he would not stand. This seems scarcely credible. Xi will ensure that he is re-elected during the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress this November. Neither man has nurtured potential successors.
And both see themselves as facing the same enemies: the United States/NATO/the west/Japan. And both have the same deep fear: a western-supported democratic uprising.
They viewed the demonstrations in Kyiv in 2014 and in Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019 as being controlled from abroad. Accordingly, Putin and Xi both need systems to exert strong internal repression. In addition, they have the world’s second- and third-largest military forces at their disposal. Russia has a large number of nuclear weapons. China has far fewer nuclear weapons, but a larger number of more modern conventional armaments.
Both Putin and Xi nurse grievances about humiliations suffered by their countries in the past. They see it as their mission to regain lost territories. The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China are two continental empires. Each has a dominant ethnic group (Russians; Han Chinese) and a number of ethnic minorities. Minority groups in both countries suffer severe repression if they demand political self-government.
In the years 2001–2005, China and Russia entered into border pacts. They have worked together successfully through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which encompasses all the Central Asian countries. The Soviet Union’s internal borders formed the basis for those of its successor states after it collapsed in 1991, but since then Putin has sought to redraw these borders by intervening in Georgia, annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine.
For many years before Xi came to power, China had focused on negotiating secure borders. It was very successful. All of its land borders are agreed, apart from those with India and Bhutan. In contrast, China’s maritime borders are highly controversial and the Taiwan issue has become ever more deadlocked. Putin and Xi benefit from the security of their countries’ borders in Central Asia, which has allowed them to focus on territorial expansion in the Black Sea and the western Pacific Ocean.
Differences between Putin and Xi
Earlier in his career, Putin was an intelligence officer in the KGB, the forerunner of today’s FSB. Xi rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party.
Putin governs a corrupt “mafia state”. His political party, United Russia, has limited significance apart from ensuring that he gets re-elected. Xi governs a systemically constructed one-party state and has tightened the Communist Party’s grip on government, business, schools and universities.
Russia has an oil- and gas-based export economy but its other industrial sectors are poorly developed. Exports account for over 25 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP). China is also heavily oriented towards exports (18 percent of GDP), but China has a diversified industrial sector that is dependent on global production and marketing chains.
Both countries have a lot of corruption, but Xi has engaged in forceful anti-corruption efforts. Putin uses corruption as an instrument of internal power.
The oppression of political opposition in Russia is severe, but somewhat haphazard. It is possible to be an opposition politician in Russia, although one will be persecuted and risk being murdered. In China, opposition is pretty much impossible. The one-party state has become a digitized police state.
Putin and Xi use their military power in different ways.
Putin has engaged in active warfare in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine and is expending more military resources than Russia can really afford. The Chinese economy is strong enough to finance a modern military sector. As a result, China’s People’s Army has become far more powerful than Russia’s. Despite this fact, China has not been at war since the 1980s. The clashes with India in 2020 in the Himalayas consisted of hand-to-hand fighting with makeshift weapons. China’s People’s Army lacks battle experience.
From an American perspective, China’s military strength puts Russia in second place as a strategic threat. The primary threat is China, because Xi’s future prospects are much better than Putin’s.
Russia is a declining power. China can expect to increase its power for another couple of decades. At that point, demographics will become an issue. China’s lower birth rate has caused the number of Chinese people of working age to stagnate; soon the number will start to fall. This decline will make it difficult for China to assemble the forces necessary to mount a military challenge to the United States and its allies.
Some see this as comforting. Others fear that Xi will become more audacious as the prospects of continued Chinese growth weaken. Will he think that he has one last chance to conquer Taiwan?
This will depend on the ageing Xi’s state of mind. Will he become more like Putin?
Willingness to take risks is associated with paranoia, impulsivity, recklessness and narcissism. Such personality traits seem more prominent in the Russian leader than in Xi. Xi appears to be methodical, calculating and unscrupulous, but also patient. He has generated a cult around himself and his ideas, but he presents himself as a highly effective bureaucrat.
Preventing war in East Asia
Xi’s bureaucratic and methodical approach gives hope that China will continue to avoid war with the United States as well as with its neighbours.
In practice, this means that China will have to live with the status quo as far as Taiwan is concerned. Even after the military exercises around Taiwan, the missiles that passed over Taiwan and the Chinese fighter jets that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, Taipei and Washington would do well to note the limits of Xi’s willingness to take risks.
The adoption of a consistent and pragmatic policy by the west can help maintain the status quo regarding Taiwan and prevent war in East Asia.
- This blog is a translation of an op ed published in Aftenposten on 16 August 2022: “Er Vladimir Putin og Xi Jinping to alen av samme stykke?“
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
- Stein Tønnesson is an Asia researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)