Alone Together: The New Isolationism of Russia and China

Commentary Regardless of the results of the war in Ukraine, one outcome that is already unfolding is the rising isolationism in both Russia and China. Both find themselves increasingly isolated from much of the world–particularly with the West–to levels we haven’t seen in decades. Why is that? What does it mean for the near future? Though it’s not wise to draw firm conclusions from two distinct nations that share certain similarities, some similarities shouldn’t be ignored. The simple answer is that as authoritarian societies, neither can tolerate the criticism nor the political disruption that comes with free citizens voicing their opinion. Not surprisingly, the free flow of ideas and the right to privacy are largely non-existent in either one. That said, until recently, both Russia and China have been deeply connected to the West. But that is changing rapidly. A Tale of Two Economies In Russia’s case, its isolation has been largely involuntary. Certainly, the decision to invade Ukraine was completely voluntary, but the consequences were not. Moscow’s actions have politically and financially alienated it from the West. Deep sanctions and the mass exodus of Western businesses have left the already weak Russian economy in a disastrous state. The ruble is virtually worthless and the Russian economy, which is mainly based on energy and arms exports, is barely afloat. It is surviving by oil and gas sales to the West and China’s financial aid. China, on the other hand, with its deep alliance with Russia, has chosen to isolate itself from the West. But such a withdrawal involves a much more complicated process. Employees produce down coats at a factory for Chinese clothing company Bosideng in Nantong, in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province, on Sept. 24, 2019. (STR/AFP via Getty Images) Unlike Russia, China is the manufacturing center of the world and a global financial leader, with a massive economic presence on every continent. But it still relies on Western markets for its products and services. Decoupling from the existing economic order won’t be easy. Diplomatically and militarily, however, as its power has grown, the Chinese regime has adopted a more aggressive tone toward the West and its regional neighbors. And with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) full support of Russia’s Ukraine war, the West is much less fond of China as a place to do business. But Beijing’s siding with Moscow in Ukraine is just the latest offense in a list that spans decades. China’s treatment of foreigners and foreign companies, for example, is increasingly dismissive and harsh. Decades of industrial espionage and IP theft against Western firms, as well as releasing the CCP virus upon the world—causing the deaths of nearly 6 million people—haven’t helped, either. Beijing seems to be okay with that, and for good reason. Like all authoritarian regimes, the CCP is vulnerable to ideas that conflict with its official version of reality. That’s a big reason why isolating the country from Western influences is on the CCP’s agenda. As the Chinese economy continues to struggle and life becomes more difficult for people, civil unrest will rise. The last thing the CCP wants is widespread domestic discontent that could turn into anti-CCP groundswell. The Party wants to maintain and grow its power and control. Insulating the country from the West will help the CCP do both. In short, dictators hate challenges to their authority. What Does This Mean for the Near Future? Both Moscow and Beijing know that there is power in unity. For instance, Russia has energy and grain, but no money. China, on the other hand, has money but needs energy and grain. In that regard, their engagement makes economic sense. Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-L) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images) But it also makes geopolitical sense. Both nations are threatened by liberalism and resent having their financial systems subject to harsh and effective sanctions by the United States. Furthermore, both nations want to topple the United States from its global influence. Dealing bilaterally avoids any U.S. interference. Unity and Isolation Challenges NATO More to the geopolitical point, unity between the two countries, though complex at times, is easier than isolation from the West. Few conflicting interests to overcome. On the flip side, China, the power partner in the alliance, holds more sway than Russia. Still, it allows both parties to closely coordinate policies on a simple, bilateral basis. That’s a much simpler route to unity than the one that Western nations, specifically NATO, has to travel. With its 30 members and three aspiring states, getting a consensus on policy is proving to be difficult. That’s not only due to the numerical challenge, but to others as well. In one sense, the war in Ukraine is uniting NATO and the West in unanimous condemnation of Russia

Alone Together: The New Isolationism of Russia and China

Commentary

Regardless of the results of the war in Ukraine, one outcome that is already unfolding is the rising isolationism in both Russia and China. Both find themselves increasingly isolated from much of the world–particularly with the West–to levels we haven’t seen in decades.

Why is that?

What does it mean for the near future?

Though it’s not wise to draw firm conclusions from two distinct nations that share certain similarities, some similarities shouldn’t be ignored.

The simple answer is that as authoritarian societies, neither can tolerate the criticism nor the political disruption that comes with free citizens voicing their opinion. Not surprisingly, the free flow of ideas and the right to privacy are largely non-existent in either one.

That said, until recently, both Russia and China have been deeply connected to the West. But that is changing rapidly.

A Tale of Two Economies

In Russia’s case, its isolation has been largely involuntary. Certainly, the decision to invade Ukraine was completely voluntary, but the consequences were not.

Moscow’s actions have politically and financially alienated it from the West. Deep sanctions and the mass exodus of Western businesses have left the already weak Russian economy in a disastrous state. The ruble is virtually worthless and the Russian economy, which is mainly based on energy and arms exports, is barely afloat. It is surviving by oil and gas sales to the West and China’s financial aid.

China, on the other hand, with its deep alliance with Russia, has chosen to isolate itself from the West. But such a withdrawal involves a much more complicated process.

Epoch Times Photo
Employees produce down coats at a factory for Chinese clothing company Bosideng in Nantong, in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province, on Sept. 24, 2019. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike Russia, China is the manufacturing center of the world and a global financial leader, with a massive economic presence on every continent. But it still relies on Western markets for its products and services. Decoupling from the existing economic order won’t be easy.

Diplomatically and militarily, however, as its power has grown, the Chinese regime has adopted a more aggressive tone toward the West and its regional neighbors. And with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) full support of Russia’s Ukraine war, the West is much less fond of China as a place to do business.

But Beijing’s siding with Moscow in Ukraine is just the latest offense in a list that spans decades. China’s treatment of foreigners and foreign companies, for example, is increasingly dismissive and harsh. Decades of industrial espionage and IP theft against Western firms, as well as releasing the CCP virus upon the world—causing the deaths of nearly 6 million people—haven’t helped, either.

Beijing seems to be okay with that, and for good reason. Like all authoritarian regimes, the CCP is vulnerable to ideas that conflict with its official version of reality.

That’s a big reason why isolating the country from Western influences is on the CCP’s agenda. As the Chinese economy continues to struggle and life becomes more difficult for people, civil unrest will rise. The last thing the CCP wants is widespread domestic discontent that could turn into anti-CCP groundswell. The Party wants to maintain and grow its power and control. Insulating the country from the West will help the CCP do both.

In short, dictators hate challenges to their authority.

What Does This Mean for the Near Future?

Both Moscow and Beijing know that there is power in unity. For instance, Russia has energy and grain, but no money. China, on the other hand, has money but needs energy and grain. In that regard, their engagement makes economic sense.

Epoch Times Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-L) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

But it also makes geopolitical sense. Both nations are threatened by liberalism and resent having their financial systems subject to harsh and effective sanctions by the United States. Furthermore, both nations want to topple the United States from its global influence. Dealing bilaterally avoids any U.S. interference.

Unity and Isolation Challenges NATO

More to the geopolitical point, unity between the two countries, though complex at times, is easier than isolation from the West. Few conflicting interests to overcome. On the flip side, China, the power partner in the alliance, holds more sway than Russia. Still, it allows both parties to closely coordinate policies on a simple, bilateral basis.

That’s a much simpler route to unity than the one that Western nations, specifically NATO, has to travel. With its 30 members and three aspiring states, getting a consensus on policy is proving to be difficult.

That’s not only due to the numerical challenge, but to others as well. In one sense, the war in Ukraine is uniting NATO and the West in unanimous condemnation of Russia and support of Ukraine.

Dividing a Paralytic NATO

But the war is also dividing NATO. The need and desire for a Western response to Russia’s aggression is unmistakable, and yet remains undecided. U.S. leadership in response to Putin has been cloaked in the language of fear rather than resolve, passively reacting to Russian behavior instead of proactively deterring it.

This lack of leadership from the supposed leader is fomenting doubts within NATO members—especially Poland, which borders Ukraine.

Furthermore, Russia’s intentions to expand the war by adding Chinese arms and financial support, as well as the potential addition of 40,000 Syrian mercenaries, suggest that an expansion of the war is already in play.

Neither Russia nor China have concerns about the effect this would have on NATO. Meanwhile, NATO says what it won’t do, but remains undecided on what it will do, who should do it, and when.

Russia and China’s unity in isolation may prove to be more effective than an indecisive, paralytic NATO.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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James R. Gorrie is the author of “The China Crisis” (Wiley, 2013) and writes on his blog, TheBananaRepublican.com. He is based in Southern California.