The main global game now is Russia-China relations: the ability of the United States to control or influence the world order is fading fast.
Russian and Chinese leaders seem currently relaxed about East-West summitry as Western security elites desperately play catch-up, trying to shore up their faltering global status.
Five Eyes audiences are being sheltered from the truth of what is happening out there in the larger world. It is easy for even discerning and well-read readers in Australia to be trapped within clinging webs of false Western narratives about what is going on in Russian and Chinese relations with each other and with Western countries.
Washington’s democratic and military intelligence elites — fearful of the continued attractiveness of Trump revanchism at home — are trying desperately to resurrect the Russia and China bogeymen as unifying liberal-imperialist state narratives. Recently they have been pushing the narrative of Russian aggressive intent towards Ukraine and of China’s genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, military threats to Taiwan and human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
In the complacent way of declining empires, Washington elites are indifferent to the unifying effect of their ham-fisted and provocative diplomacy on their defined adversaries. More and more, Washington reminds me of Byzantium, beset by Varangians from the north, Turks from the east and fanatical Islam from the south — but still utterly convinced of its legitimacy and permanence.
I think US President Joe Biden understands more of the reality of what is happening — he is a wise and experienced old owl — but one leader can only do so much in the face of the institutionalised false narratives in Washington. It is more interesting to look at what Russia and China are saying and doing, because they are supreme realists and prime movers of the international game now.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 12 published a magisterial essay on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Looking sympathetically at the poor and broken Nazi-influenced state that is Ukraine today, he offered an alternative vision of Ukraine’s future — as a respected major partner in the post-Soviet world, militarily neutral between East and West and enjoying security from both sides as an independent sovereign nation. He showed respect for what Ukraine has been trying to achieve since gaining sovereignty in 1991. He suggested there was still a workable other way but Ukraine must come to this political realisation itself.
The rage in Kiev and NATO circles was palpable. For six months, Ukrainian elites and their NATO backers have whipped themselves into a frenzy of fear of imminent Russian invasion. Of course, Russia moved its forces around within its borders to test and demonstrate to military specialists its ability to slice through Ukraine with ease, if it ever decided to invade. Kiev seemed desperate to provoke an intemperate Russian military reaction that would force NATO support for the weak President Volodymyr Zelensky. But Biden was too canny to play that game.
A Biden-Putin online summit on December 7 was reported by both sides in divergent ways. It was spun subsequently in competing Western narratives and Russian narratives. I am sure that Putin left this second summit with Biden with a confirmed view that the West at present is not “agreement capable”, that it has too many divergent factions and domestic objectives on its plate to achieve any meaningful detente with Russia.
Meanwhile, the present task for Russia and China is to send to the West clear and unambiguous messages of their red lines that the West must not cross in or around Ukraine or China while they await better times.
The main game now is in Russia-China relations. A Putin-Xi online conversation took place on December 15. The leaders discussed NATO’s “belligerent rhetoric” and the increasing Russophobia and Sinophobia in the West. They reaffirmed the strong base of Russia and China’s thriving partnership. There are a number of elements supporting their confidence.
Russia and China now now have complementary and self-sufficient economies with sufficient resilience and wealth to withstand any conceivable combination of Western sanctions. Things have reached a stage where Western partners would hurt themselves more than their adversaries by any new escalation of sanctions. Xi and Putin know that Biden knows this. French President Emmanuel Macron certainly knows it too. He is the senior European voice now. The new German leadership will soon learn that Germany’s vital Chinese and Russian relationships should not be put under undue strain, whatever Washington may demand of them.
China and Russia possess growing assurance on information warfare and now openly mock Western pretensions of global moral leadership. They know that observers of the game in what used to be called the non-aligned world are quietly making judgments and adjusting their diplomacy as the world changes. The Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation underpin the reality of a strong political, economic and even security association built around the Eurasian heartland.
This does not need to call itself an alliance, because both China and Russia are status quo powers defending the UN-based system of international security. This system rests on principles that both Russia and China support: respect for sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of states large and small, and a 75-year tested system of mutual deterrence against aggression by any state or combination of states. The system is not perfect but is the best the world has.
The West’s information warfare task is much harder: to convince other countries that its own cobbled-together coalitions outside the UN system are somehow better than what was set up after 1945. The alphabet soup of alliances intended to “contain” Russia and China — NATO, Five Eyes, the Quad, AUKUS — will in time go the way of their unlamented predecessors SEATO and CENTO. Strong multilateral groupings like ASEAN will continue to resist efforts by the West to confuse and divide them.
Biden’s “democracy summit” will be quickly forgotten as an unconvincing Western public relations gimmick to divide the world into “our good guys”’ and “their bad guys”. This division of the world into democracies and authoritarian states has no credibility: people have learned to be more sceptical.
At the level of conventional military deterrence, Russia and China are forging ahead. Regular announcements of new military hardware keep the message in Western military minds that these nations are already formidable conventional military powers.
Finally, at the level of strategic nuclear deterrence, everyone knows there can be no winners in a nuclear war, and Russia, the US and increasingly China possess invulnerable second-strike nuclear deterrents that can inflict mutual assured destruction on any aggressor. Russia under Putin has convinced itself and sober Western military leaders that “we will all go together if we go” and is thus immune to nuclear blackmail no matter how many nuclear-capable missile systems NATO installs on Russia’s borders.
The nuclear deterrent has not been defined out of existence: it always lurks there, to discourage recklessness at sub-nuclear levels. Wise old Biden knows this.
Putin and Xi’s next major meeting will be in person, at the Beijing Winter Olympics opening on February 4. Xi will not greatly care whether or not Western leaders grace this day with their presence. The Games are about athletes competing together peacefully. The Olympic spirit will work its usual magic.