Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin share a toast. Image: AFP via Zuma

The following is the seventh installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. To follow this series, click here.

Surely, Russia and China will not be impressed by fake neo-militarism in Germany or Japan. So where lies the problem?

The answer is that what brings Russia and China closer together is the challenge posed by the alliance systems that the US is assembling on their borders to “contain” them. There is an upsurge of nationalist sentiments both in Poland and in a number of other countries of Central and Eastern Europe with an increasingly anti-Russian overtone.

The US is pushing Germany to come to a consensus on Russia with Poland and the Baltic countries, which would of course require that Berlin altogether abandons even a residual pursuit of its traditional Ostpolitik in relation to Moscow, and switches instead to an adversarial mode.

Similarly, in Asia, the US is leading the Quadrilateral Alliance with Japan, India and Australia to encircle China. The US is hoping that the countries of the Asia-Pacific region can be moved into anti-China mode. With India, Washington has made headway, while the Southeast Asian nations refuse to choose sides between the US and China, and South Korea sits on the fence. 

The US is increasingly resorting to unilateral sanctions against both Russia and China that are not supported by international legal foundations, and is stepping up pressure through the extraterritorial application of national legislation to compel other countries to fall in line with its sanctions regimes and domestic laws, often in contravention of international law and the UN Charter. The European companies working on Russia’s US$11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project have been threatened with US sanctions.

Similarly, there is already talk of the US using sanctions as a weapon to browbeat small countries like Sri Lanka to terminate the Belt and Road projects being undertaken by Chinese companies.

In the Indian Ocean region, India plays the role that Poland is playing on the western fringes of Eurasia, as the Trojan horse of the US regional strategies. The regime change last year in Maldives is being taken to its logical conclusion – the establishment of a US base that supplements Diego Garcia and firms up a “second chain” to monitor and intimidate the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.

The US, with India’s backing, is pressing the newly elected Sri Lankan leadership to ratify the military pacts that have been negotiated, especially a Status of Forces Agreement that paves the way for the stationing of American military personnel on the island, which strategists have described as an aircraft carrier.

Again, the US is unabashedly politicizing the international human-rights agenda and using human-rights issues as a pretext for interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia. The US has imposed sanctions against Chinese functionaries and entities in connection with their involvement in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

There is talk of likely Western sanctions against Russia over the alleged poisoning of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Russia already faces an avalanche of US sanctions on various issues. 

Discourse of shared legacies 

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a geopolitical disaster for Russia. But the watershed event, paradoxically, prompted Moscow and Beijing, erstwhile adversaries, to draw closer together, as they watched with disbelief the United States’ triumphalist narrative of the end of the Cold War, overturning the order they both had regarded, despite all their mutual differences and disputes, as crucial for their national status and identities. 

The Soviet collapse resulted in great uncertainty, ethnic strife, economic deprivation, poverty, and crime for many of the successor states, in particular for Russia. And Russia’s agony was closely observed from across the border in China. The policymakers in Beijing studied the experience of Soviet reforms in order to steer clear of the “tracks of an overturned cart.” A sense of apprehension over the Soviet collapse might have been there, stemming from the shared roots of the two countries’ modernities. 

But looking back, while the political discourses in China and Russia on the reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Union would have shown at times divergent outlooks, the leaderships in Moscow and Beijing succeeded in ensuring that the future of their relationship remained impervious to it. 

Soon after becoming the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping is known to have spoken about the former Soviet Union. The first time was in December 2012, when, in comments to party functionaries, he reportedly remarked that China still had to “profoundly remember the lesson of the Soviet collapse.”

He went on to talk about “political corruption,” “thought heresy,” and “military insubordination” as reasons for the decline of the Soviet Communist Party. Xi reportedly said, “One important reason was that ideals and beliefs were shaken.” In the end, Mikhail Gorbachev just uttered a word, declaring the Soviet Communist Party defunct, “and the great party was gone just like that.” 

Xi said, “In the end, there was not a man brave enough to resist, no one came out to contest [this decision].”

A few weeks later, Xi revisited the topic and reportedly said that one important reason for the Soviet collapse was that the struggle in the ideological sphere was extremely fierce; there was a complete denial of Soviet history, denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, pursuit of historical nihilism, confusion of thought; local party organizations were almost without a role. The military was not under the Party’s oversight.

“In the end, the great Soviet Communist Party scattered like birds and beasts. The great Soviet socialist nation fell to pieces. This is the road of an overturned cart!” 

In the Russian narrative, the main reason was the failure of the Soviet macro-economic policy. It is easy to see why President Vladimir Putin appeals to China’s experience of reform and opening.

Putin does not claim to be a Marxist-Leninist; nor does he draw on the Soviet ideology for legitimacy. In his perspective, perestroika was well founded, as Gorbachev clearly understood that the Soviet project had run aground. But Gorbachev’s new ideas and new policies failed to deliver and led in turn to a deep economic crisis and financial insolvency that ultimately discredited him and destroyed the Soviet state. 

Putin had first-hand experience of both the wonders of Soviet socialism and its fatal failure to compete with the West in providing quality of life for the citizens. Probably, Putin returned to St Petersburg from his post in Dresden utterly disenchanted with communist ideals. Putin was not quite five months old when Josef Stalin died, and for him, the great figures of Marxism-Leninism didn’t add up to much. 

On the other hand, Xi Jinping experienced China in the grip of a revolution. For Xi, Mao Zedong was both a godlike figure and a living person. Xi’s own father was Mao’s comrade (even if Mao purged him). Xi experienced the Cultural Revolution first-hand. Yet, for him, denying Mao would be like denying a part of himself. Therefore, Xi’s rejection of Soviet-style “historical nihilism” comes naturally to him.

In Xi’s words, “The Soviet Communist Party had 200,000 members when it seized power; it had 2 million members when it defeated Hitler, and it had 20 million members when it relinquished power.… For what reason? Because the ideals and beliefs were no longer there.”

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. It is the seventh article in a series. Part 8 will examine the factors pushing Putin and Xi together.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

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