By Boris Ryvkin
The recent release of Dr. Constantine Menges’ China: the Gathering Threat in the Russian Federation demonstrates a growing interest in analyses of the rise and intentions of China’s Communist regime. Through an artificial pricing of exports, the closure of their domestic market to Western business, and the systematic reduction of labor wages, the Chinese have engaged in a dangerously one-sided trading game with their international partners. The aim has not been the expansion of human rights and democratization, but a determined effort to achieve global hegemony. Of all its potential foes, the United States has been officially declared the “main threat.” In what may be the greatest geopolitical game since Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy, Menges lays out the steps the US must take to contain China’s ambitions and protect our global position.
While the text centers on US strategy and attitudes towards China’s rise, Russia’s role in the unfolding drama is vitally important. The release of the book in Russia has renewed discussion about a topic tabooed by many in the political and military inner circle. Lack of discussion about the territorial threat posed by Chinese expansion to Russia’s Far Eastern territories, authority in Central Asia, and status as a great power stems from a larger confusion and nostalgia plaguing Russian foreign policy. As the forward to the Russian edition reveals, ignorance in no way replaces truth. As Russian policymakers debate the demographic crisis looming across Siberia and the Far East, see an Islamist surge across Central Asia and the Caucasus, and miss opportunities to move closer to the West, the Chinese threat will become more acute and Menges’ work will only grow in influence.
The Chinese Communist Party has undergone a transformation of means, but not purpose. The era of Mao Zedong’s land reforms, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution have given way to Hu Jintao’s more temperate but no less lethal Communist dictatorship. The Mao era led to the deaths or imprisonment of over 70 million Chinese, a crippling of the agricultural sector, and a decimation of China’s intellectuals. Having declared his regime one of “true” Communism, Mao dreamed of Chinese dominance across Eurasia.
Following his death in 1976, and with the next decade seeing the rapid undermining of Communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists made a momentous decision. Proceeding in the direction of economic liberalization and reduced regimentation, they forcefully repressed any democratization efforts and signs of dissent against party control. Advances in information technology and increased minority demands for equality and representation have led to swift reaction. An extensive labor camp network remains operational, Buddhists and other religious groups are targeted, and the media remains under heavy state oversight. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which China is a key member, has made controlling internet speech a priority equal to fighting international terrorism. Internal political divisions are, nevertheless, evident within the Party. Hard-line elements within the military and parts of the Central Committee push for greater use of force against Taiwan and Japan, as well as a return to Mao’s economic policies. They are subordinate to more moderate leaders, who see greater promise in the present combination of economic development and political repression. Most of the pro-democratic voices have been relegated to political oblivion.
After crushing student protests at Tiananmen Square, the regime tightened its hold on Tibet, intimidated Taiwan with ballistic missile over-flights, and engaged in nuclear proliferation efforts with North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Iran. With 40% of its exports going to the US, which has extended and renewed China’s most favored trading nation status since 1982, China has used its estimated $732 billion cumulative trade surplus for military expansion. The hard currency earnings of the regime, which has greatly invested in international bond markets, have approached $1.5 trillion in dealings with Japan, the EU, and the US. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, recent estimates place Chinese land-based nuclear missile strength at 80, with 20 ICBMs having a range of up to 5,000 miles (Norris and Kristensen, 2006). The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency predict a several-fold increase in warhead quantity by the end of the decade, but deployment has stabilized the past six years. The Chinese are developing two new solid-fueled missiles and expanding their submarine capabilities. An army of 2.3 million, the largest standing force in the world, only adds to the danger.
Chinese military doctrine sees war with the “US hegemonists” as inevitable and seeks dominance by indirect conflict. The aim is to push the US out of the Pacific Rim and the Far East by coercion and provocation. The consensus among the general staff seems to be that the US will not fight over Taiwan, and a weakening of US influence in Japan and South Korea is only a matter of time. A confused US response over North Korea and a not so favorable situation in Iraq only fuel Chinese assessment of the US as a paper tiger. The great Sun Tzu argued that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” and it is clear the Chinese are making the most of this maxim. Of its 24 neighboring states, China has territorial claims to at least 11 and has used its demographic advantage to push into Siberia; this places the rising giant on a possible collision course with a still not fully recovered former giant: Russia. To effectively handle the Chinese threat, Russia is essential. It has diverged in post-Communist development from its eastern neighbor, has serious concerns about its role in the international system, and retains a sizeable nuclear arsenal.
Russia’s reception of Menges’ book holds incalculable importance. Vitaly Tsigichko wrote the official forward to the Russian edition. He highlights the threat of China to his nation’s Far Eastern territories. “A conclusion can be reached that China must expand its ‘living space’ in accordance with increased economic and military growth against the interests of weaker neighbors, including Russia” (Tsigichko, 2006). A demographic occupation of Central Siberia and Baikal by waves of Chinese migrants is equally worrisome. “The hegemonic ambitions of China pose an unprecedented threat to the Russia’s interests in Asia and the Pacific” (Tsigichko, 2006). Menges himself hypothesizes a worse-case scenario, where sweeping Chinese annexation of Russia’s eastern territories would reduce the once mighty empire to the size of historical Kievan Rus.
Tsigichko concludes the forward with a praise of the timeliness and incredible importance of the text to Russia’s political elite and administration. He argues that Russia has only two viable choices in dealing with China. It can realign with the democratic West, which would mean a change in attitudes towards the US and a reassessment of Russian policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, to contain China’s hegemonic ambitions. The alternative sees Russia becoming a poker chip in China’s geopolitical games, ceding most of Eastern Siberia, and ending its existence as a relevant player in the international system.
Russia’s current policy predicaments are directly linked to the highly negative and disillusioned view of the Yeltsin era. The shock-therapy model advocated by Gaidar and Yeltsin in 1992, which saw full-scale liberalization of wages and prices combine with an end to state industrial subsidies, was advertised as the best way to shake off the nation’s Communist stagnation. Growth was promised in two years, but the nation faced six years of rising inflation, declining pensions, and a wage non-payment crisis. Yeltsin’s government placed economic transition ahead of institutional and legal reform, leading to problems with both. The storming of the White House, a two year quagmire in Chechnya, and the cementation of oligarchic control of the Kremlin following the 1996 Presidential election sent hopes for a brighter future plummeting.
Putin’s foreign and domestic policies have exploited popular disenchantment to send Russia on a perilous course. Bureaucratic centralization, the loss of regional autonomy, and the decapitation of whatever remained of a relevant Duma have gone hand in hand with growing anti-Western hysteria. The regime has, along with joining the SCO, signed mutual cooperation and military defense treaties with its Chinese neighbor. Russia has opposed efforts to sanction Iran and North Korea for their violent provocations, seeks to undermine US interests in Central Asia, and desires a coalition defeat in Iraq. Russia has cooperated with Palestinian terror groups and restricted NGO operations inside its borders. Putin dismissed suggestions of western mediation in the Chechen conflict and forcefully opposes an expansion of colored revolutions into Eastern Europe.
The Russians are dangerously trying to play off the West and the Chinese, despite rejecting their identification with the former and underestimating the threat posed by the latter. It seems foolish not to take Chinese ambitions and doctrine seriously vis a vis Russia’s eastern territory, Central Asian influence, and Middle Eastern strategy. The Chinese seek global dominance, while the US wants to keep the status quo (which leaves Russia fully in control of its sovereign territory). Building security and economic relations with the Chinese may seem logical from the perspective of a Russia following the Lavrov non-alignment formula, but illogical in a Russia committed to maintaining long-term relevance and sovereignty. Our greatest hope, both for a secure US and a stable Russia, lies in Menges’ words gaining more traction within our old rival’s policy circles.
Boris Ryvkin is a student in political science at Brown University and a researcher in Hudson's Center for Future Security Strategies.