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China and Russia Are Not Mirror Images

Three months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech claiming that “the foundations of the international order are under serious and sustained challenge.” Yet Blinken passed over the invasion quickly: “Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a clear and present threat…[but] China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”

The US foreign policy establishment increasingly casts China and Russia as the same in essential respects—authoritarian states aiming to undermine liberal values and American power (two very different issues that are usually conflated in Washington). Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, for example, contrasted a US vision for the world “that privileges freedom and openness” with the “coercion and aggression” of “the vision put forward by President Putin and Xi.” From this perspective, the most important difference is that China is more powerful, so the US must not allow Russian aggression to distract from the larger priority of containing China.

Conflating the two countries in this way represents a profound failure of analysis that, in the name of saving the global system, may strangle the only hope for its peaceful renewal. China and Russia traveled very different paths in the period of free market globalization and its long post-2008 disintegration, and those divergent histories have produced fundamentally distinct ruling elites with different global orientations. The extraction-oriented Russian leadership, threatened by and resentful of the West, aims to destabilize the US-dominated system while offering no positive alternative. By contrast, the Chinese leadership, though marked by similar fears and resentments, has a far more capacious and constructive global vision derived from its wider international linkages and orientation toward production rather than extraction.

For precisely the same reason that China is more powerful than Russia—its successful, multifaceted growth under free market globalization—it is also potentially a partner in the task of reforming a global system that’s drowning in inequality and enmity. This does not require acceding to the Chinese government’s many unjust practices, but it does demand a greater appreciation among Americans for the differing sensibilities and aims of Russian and Chinese leaders that have arisen from the two countries’ sharply contrasting experiences of the past four decades.

Read the full piece in The Nation.

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