The biggest gainer from the collapse of the USSR was not the West, but China

by Amb Deepak Vohra

New Delhi: No one trusts China. Talking to his Chinese counterpart on 11 February 2021, Joe Biden expressed concern over China’s coercive and unfair trade practices, its violation of human rights, crackdown in Hong Kong, mistreatment of Muslims, aggressive actions in Asia including Taiwan, and obfuscation over the virus. Beijing wants the world to forget these issues.

“There will be repercussions for China and he knows that,” Biden said later. There are several bills in the US Congress to punish China. Joe Biden told US senators that “if we don’t get moving, they (China) are going to eat our lunch” and said famously that Xi does not have a democratic bone in his body. Beijing, drunk with hubris, does not understand American English.

During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington had reached a comfortable modus vivendi, a strategic stalemate. With an awesome military but a hollow economy, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and in the words of an American scholar, history ended. We-are-the-world America became the go-to physician, teacher, preacher, lifesaver, policeman for the world. American triumphalism was indigestible.

Since communism had collapsed, Chinese Communist Party talked about socialism with Chinese characteristics. They began to befriend Russia, which was willing to overlook China’s 1970s betrayal despite the fact that Soviet design, equipment, and skilled labour and nuclear technology helped the industrialization and modernization of the PRC. In 1992 they announced a “constructive partnership”; in 1996 a “strategic partnership”; and in 2001 signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation”.

The proud Russians, considerably weakened after the dissolution of the USSR, experienced their noses being ground into the dirt, even as Russia’s former constituents and allies, never comfortable with being Moscow’s lackeys, flocked to the triumphant West. In its decade of humiliation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia too looked westwards, flirting with western liberal democracy, and even thinking it might be let into the NATO Club, only to experience its economy ravaged by oligarchs and their western patrons. Boris Yeltsin believed that liberal western democracy was the weapon of mass destruction for the hated vestiges of Soviet communism. By the turn of the millennium, Russia was destitute, feeling betrayed and isolated. All the while, China quietly and smilingly pilfered western technology and management practices to become a manufacturing powerhouse. Even though Russia aligned with America after 9/11, Moscow saw the colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and the 2012 mass protests in Moscow as western attempts to destabilize it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought NATO dangerously close to Russia’s borders, as did the incorporation of several former Communist states. In 2000, Vladimir Putin wrote that Russia always felt itself to be a Eurasian country. The time had therefore come for a pivot to Asia. I remember that in 1950, Ambassador S. Radhakrishnan had told Josef Stalin that India considered the USSR an Asian power.

With Russia humiliated by a triumphant West, in his 2005 address to the nation Vladimir Putin said that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century…(with) the epidemic of collapse spilling over to Russia itself,” referring to separatist movements such as those in Chechnya. He was preoccupied with preserving the unity of the Russian Federation. As Russia turned its gaze to the East, it saw China, flush with funds and flexing its puny muscles, yearning to join the mega league by updating its weaponry. Russia’s formidable military-industrial complex was gasping for survival, so China rushed in, investing billions in the struggling Russian economy while upgrading its own second generation armaments to the fourth with Russian technology. To cement the new friendship, the long-standing border issue between Russia and China was gradually settled. Russia and China pledged to build an “equal and reliable partnership”, but the body language in meetings between Chinese and Russian leaders suggested an emperor-courtier relationship. During his June 2019 Russia visit, Xi Jinping condescendingly described Putin as “my best friend and colleague”. Russia-China bonhomie even created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Intoxicated by its wealth and military equipment, China took on the world. A decade ago, it even suggested dividing the world into American and Chinese spheres of influence. Like the camel, China tries to squeeze bit by bit into the Arab’s tent, intending to take it over, till, fed up, the Arab (the world) kicks it out. The triango (triangle dance) has begun.

China felt confident that Russia was isolated by its annexation of the Crimea, its support to Belarus, its thrashing of Georgia, “human rights” abuses, poisonings, murders, election meddling. In 2019-2020, following the largescale discovery of shale oil in USA, Moscow launched its infamous oil price war against the US and Saudi Arabia (by refusing to cut production). Russia continued to haemorrhage its precious reserves (that contribute a seventh of GDP). China announced that it would curtail its oil purchases from the Middle East and get them from Russia through newly constructed pipelines. China thinks it owns Russia, and sees it as a warehouse of raw materials for China’s industrial machine, and a fount of state-of-the-art military technologies. This is humiliating for Russia that until recently saw China as backward

In 2014, the two nations signed a $400 billion gas deal of the century for Russia to supply China with gas from 2018 for 30 years. Has Sinarrogance made China overplay its hand with Russia as the West did three decades ago by demeaning Moscow?

The biggest gainer from the collapse of the USSR was not the West, but China. During its supremo years, America would have had many more true friends if it had moderated its conceit, for the American way of life offers the freedom of choice and the choice of freedom (so many iffy nations rallied to its support after 9/11). China’s arrogance is costing it buddies faster than you can say Jack Robinson. It has fallen into the Caligula Trap—let them hate me as long as they fear me.

Russia seeks its lost status; China considers itself unstoppable and bridles at American attempts to constrain it. Some years ago, Russia agreed to sell China its latest Sukhoi-35S combat aircraft. Initially it refused to sell fewer than 48, in order to make up for losses it would suffer as a result of China’s inevitable pilfering of the designs, but, desperate for cash, sold half that number. With its falling population (explaining its interest in countries with high ethnic Russian populations—Ukraine, Georgia, Baltic States) Russia feels it is being devoured by China. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia remains the largest country in the world. It does not need lebensraum (living space) for ethnic Russians as overpopulated China does for its Han majority.

China’s population is ten times that of Russia, and Russia’s far east (bordering China) is among the most vacant places on earth. It is a resource-rich population-poor area. In May 2021, Vladimir Putin said bluntly that “everyone wants to bite off something from us…we will knock out their teeth so they cannot bite”. Neither Europe nor USA covets Russian territory, China does.

China is a revisionist state. Its textbooks teach that Russian provinces across the border were stolen from China during its century of humiliation and will one day return to China, just as Hong Kong and Macau did. Like many nations, Russia has found that working with China can be a double-edged sword. A militarily stronger but economically weaker Russia is playing footsie with a thug. The 2015 Russian film “China: A Deadly Friend” was an Internet hit, focusing on China’s creeping invasion of the Russian Far East, that many Russians believe is a ticking geopolitical time bomb.

Not many remember that in 1954, under Nikita Khrushchev, Russia sent letters of intent to France, Great Britain, and the United States about joining NATO. A few days after a formal “No” the USSR and its friends formed the Warsaw Pact, the Eastern Bloc counter-alliance. Europe was officially split for the next 40-plus years. I served in three former Soviet nations. Their exhilaration at independence was mellowed by the grim realities confronting them. It has not been easy for Russians to accept that from being joint Numero Uno, they are now relegated to a lower tier. Nor have they forgotten the 1969 clashes with China along the Ussuri river, near Manchuria (home of the Uyghurs) that left dozens dead. By fighting the USSR, China gained respect in the US, and then came Henry Kissinger’s famous visit two years later. The Soviets got involved in Afghanistan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Having lost the Cold War, Russians are very uncomfortable at the intensifying cooperation within the Quad format, with US President Joe Biden hosting its first virtual summit, and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visiting India in March 2021 as a sign of its institutionalization. Aware of this, India has suggested that Russia could play a more important role in the Indo-Pacific (read Quad), an idea anathema to China.

The Russian and Chinese Foreign Ministers met in March 2021 just a day after an unusually heated public exchange between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. They rejected Western criticism of their human rights records and offered an alternative vision for global governance.

Frightened of that formidable temptress democracy, Beijing’s campaigns seek to sow confusion, dissension, and doubt about democracy itself. The USSR was destroyed by democracy. Communist China barely managed to survive Tiananmen (1989) where the protestors even erected a Styrofoam statue Statue of Liberty. Hong Kong 2019-2020 again demonstrated the disruptive seduction of democracy and freedom. As did the Arab Spring of the 2010s. Even though Russia and China are today more aligned than at any time since the mid-1980s, there is growing divergence. The marriage of inconvenience is cracking. China wants to be the dominant partner in Sino-Russian relationship (as in every other). “Win win” means that China wins by being the boss, the other wins by being the flunkey. It looks like they’re cooperating, but there are significant indicators that Russia might re-pivot to the West, seeking a way out of its increasing dependency on China.

China’s economic packages via the BRI were creating influences in Russia’s backyard with unprecedented speed (worrying Moscow). China choked over the 2020 commemoration of the 160th anniversary of Vladivostok, annexed by Russia in 1860 after the Second Opium War. Moscow has “suspended” sale to China of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. There are territorial strains over outer Manchuria, that China covets owing to its water shortage. Despite Biden calling him a “killer without a soul” in March 2021, Putin said that “we will work with them…on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves”. At their meeting in May 2021, the American Secretary of State told his Russian counterpart that they were prepared to cooperate but would defend their interests. Just a few days ago, the two National Security Advisers agreed to normalize relations. The two Presidents will meet in Geneva in June 2021. If Russia looks again westwards, China’s dying Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI) will be decapitated.

Several countries (and the European Parliament) have accused China of genocide and crimes against the Uyghurs. Despite its bravado, China is hurting. Washington DC is orchestrating the rising chorus for China to come clean on the origin of the virus. Putin wants his intelligence people to give a final report by August 2021. If Russia, that has so far been quiet, joins the orchestra with the balalaika, it will be trouble for China. PingPong will move to the ICU.