Issue: 2022: Vol. 21, No. 3

Helping China Learn the Putin Lesson

Article Author(s)

John Givens

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John Wagner Givens is an Associate Professor in the International Studies Department at Spelman College. He earned his Doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford and his Masters in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. He has been interviewed by Grid News, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Chinese Central Television and has published in a variety of venues including: China Quarterly, Global Policy Journal, The Review of Policy Research, Fordham Urban Law Journal, Wisconsin International Law ... 
2022: Vol. 21, No. 3
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Seven months into Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the consequences of the war remain unclear. Russia might regain the upper hand or be forced off Ukrainian soil. No less certain is the length and intensity of Russia’s status as a pariah state. For the future of the Republic of China (ROC – Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC – the mainland), however, the international community must make Russia feel the consequences of its actions as acutely as possible. This should especially come in the form of economic and cultural sanctions that would most worry the PRC, particularly its leaders, and thereby dissuade Xi Jinping from launching an invasion of Taiwan. Long term, it might demonstrate to China’s top leaders, as well as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and country more broadly, the danger of a leader whose power remains unchecked for too long.

There is a strong case for making Russia an example for other countries wanting to settle real or imagined territorial disputes through force. If Russia can keep territorial gains, negotiate a peace, and re-enter the world relatively quickly, possible belligerents will draw the conclusion that they can do the same. If lifting sanctions on Russia is the price of peace, then countries must do so at Ukraine’s request. Regardless, they should use whatever tools of diplomacy available to them to make a lasting impression that Russia, and particularly its high-ranking leaders, will pay a price indefinitely.

China has probably already drawn military lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences. It is difficult to know how these will impact its estimates of the United States’ appetite to defend Taiwan, the island’s military capabilities, rich democracies’ stomach for prolonged economic sanctions, or the PRC’s ability to weather them. There is only so much the international response to Russia can do to impact these calculations. What Chinese leaders must become convinced of, however, is that the diplomatic and political costs of an invasion of Taiwan are not worth it. If Russians have trouble getting visas for holidays to France and athletes are kept out of Wimbledon, it could help make an invasion look unappealing to China, especially for a regime that has staked its legitimacy on making China strong and respected abroad. There are signs Russian elites are beginning to criticize the war, yet Putin, like Xi, seems to have retained sufficient popular and elite support thus far. The sting of sanctions will need to prove stronger and longer-lasting if they are really to be an example.

The Russian example should show top Chinese leaders that if China invades Taiwan their foreign assets will be seized, and their children would no longer be welcome in world’s top universities. Ideally, examples of measures that would specifically target and hurt top Chinese leaders should go beyond simply disincentivizing an attack on Taiwan and should make China’s leadership think twice about how long they want Xi’s rule to continue unchecked.

Born eight months apart in the world’s two largest Communist countries, the similarities between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are notable. There were, however, profound differences between the countries they inherited from their predecessors. Despite a constitutional crisis, likely election fraud, and massive political influence from oligarchs, Russia in 1999 was relatively freer and more democratic. Its post-Soviet political structure had yet to be institutionalized and it was struggling to find its economic footing after a decade of decline. In contrast, 2012 China was much less free and democratic, but had institutionalized a regular transfer of power and engineered 25 years of near 10% growth. Despite these differences, Xi and Putin’s rule mark the beginnings of periods of repression. Figure 1 demonstrates this as the Varieties of Democracy Freedom of Expression and Alternative Sources of Information index shows marked declines starting when Putin and Xi take power in their respective countries. While the decline under Putin is more dramatic, as Russia had further to fall, it is notable that the trend continues largely unabated in both countries.

Figure 1: Freedom of Expression and Alternative Sources of Information index for Russia for Russia and China 1980-2021

Russia China

Source: Varieties of Democracy Dataset

Similarities notwithstanding, Putin has been in power a dozen years longer and could be made to serve as a cautionary tale for top Chinese leaders. From 2008-2012, he used Dmitry Medvedev as a placeholder to extend his effective rule of Russia past constitutional limits. In the Fall of 2022, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is the equivalent moment for Xi when he will almost certainly make the moves necessary to rule China for a third term. By staying in power beyond what law and precedent allow, he will announce both his intention and ability to rule China indefinitely. If Chinese leaders can see that Putin’s adventurism has needlessly hurt their Russian peers, it could convince them to put curbs on Xi’s power or even pressure him to name a successor or retire.

Putin’s invasion is rooted in his revanchism, reconstruction of Russian national identity as the protector of Slavic (Russian) people, and an effort to shore up his legacy as a leader on par with Peter the Great – a comparison he welcomes. A common theme in history is that the longer leaders are in power and the less opposition they face, the more likely they are to overreach, especially in terms of foreign policy. In other words, the longer Xi stays in power the more likely he follows a similar path to the one Putin has trod. For better or worse it seems clear what form this is likely to take. 

Since the Chinese Nationalist Party fled there in 1949, all parties have recognized Taiwan as part of China, but practically distinct. For a generation, the common wisdom of China-watchers was: “The number one principle – if you are a Chinese leader – is not that you have to regain Taiwan in the next five years. It’s that you can’t lose Taiwan.”

More recently, this logic may have begun to shift, and Beijing seems more inclined to seriously consider an effort to retake Taiwan. In part, this is because the balance of power has slowly moved in Beijing’s favor. But it may also be the product of Xi’s consolidation of power and need to prove himself by producing tangible evidence that he has made China strong. In some ways, Xi has more need of a dramatic gesture to prove himself than Putin, who can still claim credit for pulling Russia’s economy out of its doldrums of the 1990s. By contrast, Xi has largely overseen a gradual slowing after three decades of exceptional economic growth. Whether or not Xi ever receives bad health news, as Putin supposedly has, the older he gets and the longer he stays in power the more he will feel pressure to do something dramatic to secure his legacy and the more tempting Taiwan might become.

Domestic troubles could also provoke the need for dramatic action on Taiwan as a distraction. It is insufficient, therefore, simply to use the Russian example to make the costs of an invasion of Taiwan look high and hope that a cost-benefit analysis will prevail on the side of peace. Consequences for Russia that make Chinese leaders doubt the wisdom of allowing such a powerful and permanent leader to become entrenched in the first place would be much better. Additionally, with the 20th National Congress looming, now is the perfect time to sow doubt among CCP leaders who could, at the very least, pressure Xi to name a successor. This might seem like a small step, yet it would signal that Xi will eventually step down. Additionally, in China, successors help form an alternative node around which power and opposition to a current leader can coalesce.

It is both far too optimistic and simplistic to assume that making Russian leaders face consequences for the invasion of Ukraine will lead to China returning to the regularized transfer of power. Even if it did, that would not ensure Taiwan’s safety. Yet, it is even less realistic to conclude that letting Russia escape consequences would not be seen as a sign that there are few consequences for open belligerence. Making Russia, and in particular its leaders, an example is a bare minimum for maintaining a world committed to peace. That there is an outside chance it could make the CCP, and even the Chinese people, reconsider limits on Xi’s power is a bonus.