Russia and China’s plans for a new world order

Vladimir Putin reviews a military honour guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8 2018

Vladimir Putin reviews a military honour guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8 2018.

The difference in the scale of the ambitions of China and Russia reflects the difference in their economic potential. Russia’s economy is now roughly the size of Italy’s. Moscow simply does not have the wealth to sustain a bid for global supremacy. By contrast, China is now, by some measures, the world’s largest economy. It is also the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. Its population of 1.4bn people is roughly ten times that of Russia. As a result, it is realistic for China to aspire to be the most powerful country in the world.

But while the differences in the economic potential of Russia and China makes Xi ultimately more ambitious than Putin, in the short term it also makes him more cautious. There is something of a gambler’s desperation in Putin’s willingness to use military force to try to change the balance of power in Europe. Trenin argues that, having seen Nato expand into much of what was once the Soviet bloc, Putin sees Ukraine as his “last stand”.

In Beijing, by contrast, there is a strong feeling that time and history are on China’s side. The Chinese also have many economic instruments for expanding their influence that are simply not available to the Russians. A signature project of the Xi years is the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast international programme of Chinese-funded infrastructure that stretches into Central Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

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