Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin make a statement after talks at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017. Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin make a statement after talks at the Kremlin on July 4, 2017. Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Interpreting and understanding political movements and societal disruptions usually don’t occur in large macro-settings like the recent Group of 20 Summit. Other than bashing Donald Trump along with China and Germany for their unwillingness to take on larger global roles from the United States, nothing significant happened. To track global movements it is the micro, internal actions of nations that should be followed.

There are two recent examples, both of which illustrate why China and Russia still can’t be trusted on a moral, geopolitical scale.

Recently human-rights pioneer Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer after being locked in a Chinese prison because the Communist regime believed he was “inciting subversion of state power”. Liu famously said in response to this charge, “I have no enemies and no hatred.” For those timeless words he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”.

This petty, vindictive micro-behavior by the Chinese government shows that it is still not ready for the world stage – no matter how many climate agreements it says it is ready to enforce or islands it steals in the South China Sea. China is the biggest impediment to peace and stability in Asia, not North Korea, its proxy.

Duped Westerners continue believing that China will save the Paris Climate Agreement, yet few of them have actually read what China has pledged. According to projections from the US Energy Information Administration, China will actually increase emissions 32% through 2040. Moreover, The Wall Street Journal reported that China’s five-year energy and economic plan would “raise coal-fired power capacity from around 900 gigawatts last year to as high as 1,100 gigawatts by 2020”.

Reuters investigated China’s climate pledges and found that a joint venture with Pakistan would produce over the next 15 years a dozen coal-fueled power plants across the country at a cost of roughly US$15 billion.

But it is Beijing’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo and what that revealed about the Chinese population and government that is the most troubling, not the doubts over its supposed environmental credentials.

Non-violent protests in China are often met with government intimidation, harassment, arrests and unfounded criminal prosecution. It’s revealing that authoritarian regimes such as China are so unsure of themselves, but that’s the nature of socialism and communist governments. Vulnerability is their very nature, and suppression of information to keep their own citizens in the dark.

Very few Chinese have ever heard of Liu, and in numerous surveys the government enjoys unparalleled levels of trust and approval; however that comes with a caveat. The Communists aren’t ignorant of history, and understand that what happened to the Soviet Union could occur on their watch. They knows that unless they control the flow of information and maintains high economic growth fueled by debt, their regime could collapse.

But at least China wants to sustain economic growth. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin and his cronies are intent on  destroying whatever is in their path so they can create a buffer zone to protect Mother Russia.

What China and Russia have in common, besides not being ready for the world stage, are the ghosts of World War II that haunt them both.

The Ukrainian Institute for the Future (UIF) has released a damning report titled “Crimea: Three Years of Occupation”. The report paints a picture of the horrific human and economic costs of Russian rule in the region. It further claims that the Kremlin’s Crimean project is a threat to Russia and the Crimean population. It metaphorically compares the Russians to the locusts that devoured Egypt in the story in the Old Testament.

Under Putin’s administration, Crimea has seen the imposition of a large number of draconian new laws, an uptick of human-rights abuses, “systemic persecution” of Crimea’s indigenous Tatar population (even banning the Tatar governing body – mejlis ­– branding it a terrorist organization), and subjugating the local population to Moscow’s control.

To date more than 2 million Crimeans, out of a population of 20 million, have fled, creating a refugee crisis that has been unreported though it is similar in size and scope to that caused by the Syrian crisis. But the shrewd Russians have replaced them with Russian civil servants, military personnel and retirees – who have been given generous state subsidies and perks – to reside in Crimea. One study also notes plans to move an additional million Russians into the region over the next five years.

All of these moves have caused the Crimean economy to become a cash-intensive society a kind that is usually seen as a backward macroeconomic step.

What each narrative shows is how underreported and overlooked issues, which are the heart of micro-analysis, are many times what can reveal the movement, or lack of it, of nations in terms of human rights, equality for women, and differing points of view.

Both China and Russia portray reclamation of lands as their destiny, culminating in halting the hegemony of the US and its allies in the post-World War II order. But economic millstones hang around both countries’ proverbial necks. Sanctions, low oil prices and unusually high debt-to-GDP ratios will doom both economies, which will cause them to become expansionist powers.

The UIF’s lead study editor, Tara Beresovets, claims: “Crimea is a time bomb for Russia.” And I’d add that North Korea is one for China. These neo-imperial projects in Crimea and the South China Sea threaten Europe, Asia and global economic growth and peace.

What this should teach nations in both countries’ sphere of influence is to proceed with caution and arm militarily, treat your economy as a geopolitical weapon, use intelligence apparatuses wisely and consider acquiring nuclear deterrents. Independence should not be taken lightly when it comes to China and Russia. Their micro-movements reveal their macro-ambitions.

Todd Royal has a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University and has worked for Duke University. He is published by the U.S. Library of Congress on hydraulic fracturing and the geopolitical implications of expanded US oil and gas production. He is a consultant and writer on international geopolitical strategy, energy, and US state and local government.

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