How China and Russia are reshaping the world

Just as I was settling down to read Power Politics: How China and Russia Reshape the World, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the UN-appointed tribunal that passes judgement on international maritime disputes, released its report on a case brought by the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a meticulous adjudication under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which China is a signatory), the Hague ruling effectively found no historical or legal basis for Chinese claims to maritime territories within its own “nine-dash line”.

China has been busily reclaiming land and building up reefs to support its claims and install docking and landing facilities that could be used for military purposes. Immediately following the unequivocal ruling handed down by the international tribunal, which Beijing refused to participate in, Chinese President Xi Jinping dismissed its legitimacy and pledged that China and the Chinese people would not accept it. In more dramatic terms, Chinese media and Chinese netizens fulminated against the latest example of western mistreatment. China’s reaction to the Hague ruling came too recently to be included in the book, but its author would not be surprised by it. China, along with Russia, are singled out as two major threats to the existing “western way” of managing global affairs.

An accessible primer from the Realist perspective on international relations, the book is explicitly a study in power: rising power, declining power, power vacuums, power politics. The spectre of tragic great power politics looms large, while western “soft power”, it is argued, has run out of steam. Wijk argues that the west needs to face up to some uncomfortable truths. Among them, the realization that the “western way” is no longer as attractive or “powerful” as it once was; that “a diminished west will no longer be able to shape the world order in line with its own preferences” (p. 185). For the past 50 years that order has been defined by ostensibly global institutions like the UN, IMF and ICJ and the promotion of “universal values” like human rights and democracy. Financial crises, the failure of democracies to address long-term problems like climate change, and the loss of the moral high ground through military interventions have dented the west’s ability to co-opt, just as economic power has shifted to Asia.

Powers like Russia and China feel that they have been left out and marginalised by the “western way” and are questioning their place in it. In some cases they are actively challenging western norms and institutions—most obviously Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also manifest in China’s AIIB, internet sovereignty, territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and the exertion of influence through economic engagement across the globe. Wijk argues that China and Russia are different from the west, with their notions of exceptionalism, memories of historical wrongs and the psychological need to restore injured national pride and status—to rediscover great power lost. Drawing, not always convincingly on Samuel Huntington (“in the East, the east Asian, Japanese and western civilizations are clashing” p. 37), Wijk argues that the use of power is conditioned by political and strategic cultures, and that Russian and Chinese strategic cultures are dangerous, manifest in a worrying combination of “assertiveness” and nationalism. If you fear these developments will lead to conflict, Wijk would concur: Conflict occurs along geopolitical “fault lines”, where, it is implied, ‘cultures clash’, and the fault lines between the EU, NATO and Russia, and between the US, its allies and China in the South China Sea are among the most dangerous.

The relationship between China and Russia is not much interrogated, and readers are left wondering whether it is collaborative or conflictual. Sino-Russian relations are complicated by historical legacies and mutual suspicion, and it may only be, in Bobo Lo’s memorable phrase, an “axis of convenience”, but surely the relationship between two powers each described as challenging the “western way” is of interest? Is Central Asia, where the former Soviet states are rapidly been drawn into China’s economic orbit, a fault line? Or should China and Russia be conceived as partners in their shared insistence on non-interference, apparent rejection of some “universal values” and shared sense of western ambivalence if not hostility towards them?

This book is nominally about Russia and China, but its message is squarely aimed at a western readership. Westerners, it is implied, have grown complacent with the dominance of the “western way”. But, as good Realists know, power politics may lie dormant, but it is always there. With the relative decline of western power creating a vacuum filled by the rising power of nations that do not necessarily buy into the “western way”, the conditions are ripe for a return to 19th Century behaviours to come back to the fore. Where others, certainly China, see a more equitable world resulting from a diversity of nations participating more energetically in global affairs, for Realists multi-polarity means instability. With this in mind, Wijk has some sensible, albeit common, recommendations for western governments. The west needs a more pragmatic and less normative foreign policy, and to seek appropriate compromises and overlapping interests when dealing with China and Russia. Ultimately, however, the message is a predictably Realist one: the west must not stint on compiling hard power as a bulwark against challenges to the “western way”.

As a contemporary, introductory text on the Realist world view, this is a brief and breezy read, with the pros and cons that entails. Chapters on the sources and uses of national power are straightforward where other texts get bogged down in theoretical expositions. There is some interesting speculation about space, the polar regions and cyberspace, fields where power politics may soon start to play out. It is, however, a partial and pessimistic world view. The “western way” has a huge reservoir of “soft power”, and the potential for outright conflict in the South China Sea is, in my view, exaggerated. Despite troubling signs, China has not withdrawn from global institutions or world trade, it is integrated in regional fora and involved in tackling major global issues like climate change. In the Chinese case, “assertiveness” is not the precursor to the outright rejection or challenge to the world order. However, its “national rejuvenation” has changed the calculus for its neighbours and other countries that must acknowledge (even if they don’t like them) China’s interests and formulate a sensible response.