Published on The Financial Times, by Geoff Dyer, August 27, 2008.
August 8 has already been pencilled in by some as a turning point in modern history, the day that authoritarianism stood up as a credible force for the first time since the end of the cold war. Television producers did not know where to look. On one screen Chinese drummers were launching the hi-tech opening extravaganza of the Olympics, while on another Russian tanks were filing into Georgian territory.
Each event seemed to be a snub to the idea of the inevitable advance of liberal democracy – Russia with its re-discovered military muscle and China celebrating its mixture of dynamism and political control. Like so many big narratives, however, the story about the rise of the new authoritarians leaves out a lot of important detail. While Russia has spent the past decade becoming more authoritarian, China has been slowly moving in the opposite direction – even if it took a lurch backwards in the run-up to the Olympics.
The story also misses how the actions of one authoritarian regime might affect the attitudes of the other, which is very much the case with Russia’s incursion into Georgia. At the start of the conflict, China was probably not too unhappy. But with Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the attitude is likely to shift. If Russia ramps up the pressure much further, it could actually push China closer to the US …
… The biggest problem for China, however, is Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Independence for small break-away provinces is one of the few subjects that turn Chinese diplomats from cool-headed calculators of national self-interest into brittle ideologues.
As the March turmoil in Tibet showed, China views questions of regional autonomy as a direct threat to the state. A surprising amount of Chinese time and energy still goes on trying to isolate the government of Taiwan while Chinese diplomats work overtime to denounce groups that promote cultural and political issues in Xinjiang, even if they have no connection whatsoever with terrorism. When Russia was battling to oppose independence for Kosovo, China was firmly on its side.
At the moment, Beijing can afford to keep a low profile, safe in the knowledge that the US will veto recognition of the two regions if it ever comes to the UN Security Council. But the last thing China wants is an escalated conflict, let alone a new cold war, that forces it to take sides.
In the early 1960s, a swathe of western analysts missed the Sino-Soviet split because they confused a shared belief in Marxism-Leninism for a lock-step partnership. Just because the two countries are now pursuing forms of authoritarian capitalism does not mean they are automatic bedfellows. China has moved closer to Russia in recent years, but there are clear limits to the alliance that Washington could exploit. (full text).
(The writer is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief).