FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

There is a flood of articles in many journals speculating about the return of Cold War geopolitical dynamics. That return, I believe, is inevitable.

Cold War geopolitics was characterized by containment and confrontation, with the rival powers seeking to consolidate and possibly expand their respective spheres of influence. That is exactly where we are today.

This week, on his first foreign trip since his “reelection,” Vladimir Putin headed to Beijing. That signals the extremely high priority Moscow puts on its bilateral relations with China. It also signals the altered relationship between the two.

The week before, Putin fired his defense minister and replaced him with an economist. This is taken as an indication Russia is preparing for a long war of attrition in Ukraine, pitting her entire industrial base against the industrial power of the western alliance.

The war, initiated without provocation by Russia, is taking a heavy toll on her economy. The toll is magnified by the economic sanctions imposed on the country. These sanctions limit Russia’s ability to trade with the rest of the world and acquire advanced technologies it direly needs, at the very least to upgrade its war machine. Although Russia may threaten the world with its nuclear arsenal, its conventional fighting force was humbled in Ukraine.

In addition to rapidly upgrading its industrial base, Russia is discovering it does not have enough of a population to sustain a major war effort. Moscow has drafted convicts for its army and imported mercenaries from Nepal and Africa. She has not had the luxury of time to fully train recruits and continues to absorb huge losses in the battlefield. The shortages in combatants and in equipment will become more severe as the war goes on.

Russia needs China desperately. This is why it is Putin who is constantly in Beijing to plead with his Chinese hosts.

Russia-China bilateral trade has surged since Ukraine was invaded. Moscow relies on the Chinese industrial base to resupply its army, especially for electronic components for weaponry. Russia does not have the cutting edge industries that China has.

While China insists it is neutral in the Ukraine war, it is no secret that Chinese industrial products are flowing to Russia. But Beijing also comes under immense international pressure to desist from supplying Russia with advance weaponry.

China has become the outlet for Russian raw material exports. These exports are then resold to the rest of the world. Without China performing this role, Russia will lose the critical revenue from exports it needs to sustain its war effort.

Beijing is trying to walk the tightrope. On one hand, China must exert effort to maintain trading access to the global economy. On the other hand, she needs to support Russia.

Putin in Beijing was accorded the pomp and pageantry reserved only for closest allies. But that could not conceal the fact that Russia has slid to the role of junior partner in this alliance. Russia needs China more.

The communique coming out of Putin’s visit did not contain anything new beyond the platitudes of a friendship “without limits.” We can only speculate about what Russia asked for in the private meetings and what China was ready to give.

It is apparent Russia needs to resupply its degraded arsenal. But China may not be ready to directly supply modern weapons to replace the obsolete ones lost in the course of the war. Supplying Russia with weapons could curtail China’s access to other markets. Already, the US has imposed higher tariffs on Chinese exports and limited China’s access to microelectronics.

While there may be many security and strategic interests that bind the two countries together, it is also true that Russia and China are two very different countries. The former is doomed to international isolation and a creaking domestic economy. The latter has ambitions to lead the world with cutting edge technologies and efficient trading networks.

Beijing is not quite ready to give up its market access to Europe, North America and East Asia to more vigorously support Russia’s flagging war effort in Ukraine. That is not economically wise. But Beijing wants to be able to count on Russian support in the event it decides on more aggressive steps to resolve the Taiwan question.

Both Russian and Chinese propaganda machines have been on high gear predicting the decline of the West and the triumph of their respective autocratic models of rule. But that is propaganda.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill so sagely observed, is a horrible form of government. But every other form is worse.

Both Russia and China are expending so much state resources on domestic repression. The systematic suppression of citizens in both states is hardly a model that inspires the populations of other countries.

Russia and China do not have completely identical visions for their people’s future. But they do not lack in trying to expand their spheres of influence – mostly by aggression and war. Both cynically use nationalism to hold public support.

So far, however, the only other countries joining their axis are Iran and North Korea. Like the two principals, the two other countries are exceptionally brutal regimes. Their populations are basically prisoners of the ruling tyrants.

There must be a more hopeful future available for humanity other than enslavement to autocrats. But the axis of brutality and aggression there is confronting us all.

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