Why China Isn’t Freaking Out
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Why China Isn’t Freaking Out

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Writing in Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner recently drew attention to an ostensibly sharp contrast in rhetoric coming out of Moscow and Beijing these days. He wonders why the Kremlin would intensify its criticism of the United States when it enjoys the benefits (some might say concessions) of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. Meanwhile, China, the implicit target of the administration’s Asia “pivot,” seems to be adopting a much less confrontational posture.

Drezner’s observation, however, is only a snapshot in time. It’s much more useful to explore Russian and Chinese reactions to U.S. policy over the entirety of the Obama administration. Russia’s level of “freak out” (to use Drezner’s term) has been fairly consistent during this period, although there’s arguably been a small spike in recent months.

Soon after the inception of the so-called “reset,” the Kremlin was publicly threatening to deploy short-range ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave – which it may follow through on this spring – and to withdraw from a yet to be ratified New START in the absence of a U.S. commitment to scale down its missile defense plans in Europe.

Similarly, China’s rhetoric was much more bombastic earlier in the administration, and hasn’t been nearly as consistent as Drezner suggests. Xi Jinping may be responding to the U.S. with “aplomb,” but state-controlled media has often adopted a more strident tone. Following the new U.S. defense guidelines, for example, a Global Times editorial asserted in typically hawkish fashion that “China should unite with all possible forces and keep certain strategic initiatives against the U.S.” in order to combat attempts to “contain” China.

An editorial from last November explained  that “some hostility from the outside cannot be dissolved by our good will. We must develop our own strength to break their wild ambition of ‘taking China down.’” China’s reaction to the “pivot,” while calmer than one might have expected, is also more complicated than it appears at first glance. Beijing perhaps wishes to evince both calm and strength; it’s not panicking, nor will it roll over in the face of American resolve.

When it comes to the present disparity in Russian and Chinese rhetoric, Drezner is far too dismissive of Russia’s relative decline. Moscow compensates for its inability to keep pace with competitors by creating the illusion of power through aggressive language.

Moreover,derzhavnichestvo – or great power ideology – is thoroughly embraced by the country’s political elites. The perpetuation of this idea is important for two reasons: it resonates with a large segment of the population and is therefore valuable for propping up the regime’s legitimacy; and it allows Russia’s powerful defense establishment to justify constant budget increases and the procurement of power projection capabilities commensurate with the country’s supposed status as a global player. The latter is particularly important for Russia’s struggling arms industry.

It’s also a mistake to imply that Russia and China face similar unrest at home. Although demonstrations in China may be indicative of larger, systemic problems, they have thus far been limited to specific, localized issues, such as land seizures or village corruption. And rather than rail against the central government, protesters are often looking to Beijing for help. The roots of Russia’s dissent, however, run much deeper. These protests are founded on broader frustration with the rigidity of the country’s “managed democracy.” Anger about Putin’s brazen decision to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia’s rigged parliamentary election, coupled with the lingering consequences of the financial crisis, converged in a perfect storm last month that has shaken the regime to its core. The unease associated with these events, and the Kremlin’s traditional tendency to deflect domestic challenges by attacking the U.S./NATO, shouldn’t be overlooked. At least until recently, China hasn’t felt a similar need to do so – the localized nature of the Wukan-style protests that Drezner cites makes it easier for Beijing to step in and resolve the problems, even if only superficially.

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