Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Xi Copying Putin’s Strategy?

Photo Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

Photo Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

The Chinese are notorious for copying Western products and adapting them to serve the Chinese market.  Look at Alibaba, often described as China’s answer to eBay, or Weibo, a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. Plus, thanks to weak intellectual property protection laws in China, these companies often get away with it.

Yet there is nothing inherently immoral or illegal about governments copying geopolitical strategies from other governments, and China’s northern comrade, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, may be setting a dangerous precedent. The apparent success of Putin’s misadventures in Ukraine could serve as an attractive geopolitical militaristic strategy for other nations with territorial disputes, such as China. But if Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is so dangerous and widely condemned, why would Chinese President Xi Jinping bother copying Putin?

Some political analysts argue that when a nation’s leaders face economic difficulties, the public’s preoccupation with day-to-day problems can be alleviated by focusing on broader concerns like nationalism and the protection of the state’s interests. Economic growth in China is a serious concern, as overcapacity in real estate and heavy industry took gross domestic product (GDP) from the nine percent average from 1989 to 2015 to an expected seven percent first-quarter year-over-year growth rate this last quarter.

Russia is also facing an economic slowdown. Its GDP is expected to shrink by three percent in 2015 as $50 a barrel oil and capital outflows of $115 billion harm growth prospects. Despite an economic crisis in Russia, Putin’s popularity has soared, largely the result of increased nationalism. In May 2013, a little less than a year before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Putin’s approval ratings stood at 64 percent. Following further intervention by Russia, which stands accused of providing arms and forces in the east of Ukraine, Putin’s latest approval rating rocketed to 86 percent. Some have questioned the legitimacy of the poll numbers, but many do concede a marked increase in Putin’s popularity among ordinary Russians.

Why would the approval ratings soar after military intervention in another country? One often-cited reason could be the public’s positive perception to any government willing to stand up and defy outside criticism. Other leaders have seen their approval ratings soar when nationalism is fired up — indeed, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks former President George W. Bush enjoyed the highest approval rating of any president (90 percent). His father, George H.W. Bush, received an 88 percent approval rating in 1991 in the midst of the first Gulf War.

Joseph Nye,  a professor at Harvard University and the Assistant Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration from 1994–95, hints this same strategy may be happening in China under Xi Jinping.  In a recent interview with The Diplomat, he warns of growing nationalism under Xi:

Xi Jinping needs a legitimizing force for his power and for the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Economic growth has historically been the primary legitimizer of its authority, especially since communist ideology has declined greatly in importance. As China has an economic slowdown, nationalism will increase further, and I think we are undergoing a period of heightened attention to nationalism. I think nationalism has made it more difficult for China to resolve conflicts with its neighbors in the South China Sea. So far there is no clear indication that increased Chinese nationalism will result in military aggression. The high level meeting between Xi Jinping and Abe at the APEC summit was a positive step, as China had been resistant to these meetings in the past. But the potential for nationalism to boil over, it is something we need to watch closely.

I think the most probable scenario would be if Chinese planes and ships got involved in incidents with the Japanese in the Senkaku Islands, and lost. The Japanese might have superior capabilities in the event of conflict, and a defeat there would be a direct threat to Xi Jinping’s power.

Nye’s scenario is not so far-fetched. On Saturday, Japanese media reported on Chinese plans to build a large naval base in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province for its coast guard vessels. Wenzhou is not far from the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese), it and would allow the Chinese to closely monitor naval activities around the disputed eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea controlled by Japan.

The potential for skirmishes in the airspace above the Senkaku is also real. In November 2013, China announced the creation of its air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea, which requires all aircraft to comply with Beijing’s rules.

China also claims up to 90 percent of the South China Sea, and draws a ten-dash U-shaped line (or “cow’s tongue”) around the sea on its maps, which overlaps territorial claims by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.  Originally an eleven-dash line formulated in 1936, two dashes were removed near the Gulf of Tonkin to appease its Communist brother Vietnam. Last year, one dash was added by Beijing emphasize its sovereignty over Taiwan. In recent months, Beijing has come under have international criticism for land reclamation on islands it occupies, and for attempting to impose its control over the fishing rights in, and airspace above, the South China Sea.

Should Xi copy Putin in building nationalistic fervor in order to distract the populace from domestic problems, the strategy could well backfire. Many of the student protests in Chinese history originally began as nationalistic protests against foreign countries and morphed into protests against government leadership. The strategy could also lead to strong reactions from both regional governments and the naval superpower in the region, the United States.

Such reactions have already affected Russia. In response to Putin’s latest misadventures in Ukraine, the U.S. announced plans this past weekend to store heavy military equipment in the Baltics and Eastern European nations. The U.S. may seek a similar strategy in the East and South China Sea, and position more and more of its naval military there to reassure its allies and other nations with territorial claims and deter any further aggression from Beijing. Vietnam and the Philippines are already requesting further support from Washington, and Japan is reconsidering its constitution to allow for greater military efforts.

Besides leading to a potential dangerous and costly war, what both Xi and Putin should not forget is that while military nationalism may provide a temporary boost to popularity, it may prove short-lived, inflict further damage on the economy, and result in a failure to achieve its military objectives.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666