James Poulos, a writer whom I normally respect a great deal, spouted some nonsense about these two Asian giants over the weekend that merits a response.
Poulos argues that we should all cut Russia a little, especially given how bad it could have turned out, and how bad China is by comparison:
I am interested in putting things in perspective. Making an enemy of Russia will quite simply destroy America’s position in the world. If we lose Russia, as I have argued many times before, we lose the whole game. Meanwhile, we’re letting our emotions run away with us. There is a whiff of racism about the way we write off China’s profound inequalities as par for the course but rank Russia’s lesser miseries a crying outrage against white standards of living. Call it the soft bigotry of high expectations.
We accept from China a colossal trade imbalance, mass domestic beatings, an ever-more-comprehensive policy of foreign economic penetration in the third world, and a continually swelling and modernizing military. Yet we take one look at Russia’s aging armed forces, its fear of losing its neighbors to a military alliance born its enemy, and its struggle to recover internal sovereignty — and what do we see? The ghost of Hitler. This fatal vision, like Macbeth’s, will leave us fighting phantoms and friends alike. Russia may not yet be a friend. But if we ever want to escape the psychological legacy of both the Second World War and the Cold War — something our younger generations expect by instinct, and not instinct alone — we have got to wake up to the reality of Russia’s position in the 21st century.
This analysis is wrong on many, many counts, but it's worth focusing just on the most problematic, because it shows up pretty regularly in the commentariat, especially when making comparisons between countries - a failure to recognize the importance of trends.
Poulos seems to be on firm ground in pointing out how much worse China is than Russia on so many fronts - its human rights record its worse, its military probably more of a threat, its economic policies a more serious challenge. Why, then, worry about Russia?
The answer is, basically, because Russia is getting worse, and China better.
By any practical standard, China is becoming a more responsible international actor every day. Its truculence in the UN has moderated; Beijing actually allowed the Human Rights Council to condemn Burma last year, and probably would have played a helpful international role in the current crisis were it not battling a disaster of its own. Its military, though growing, is working hard at confidence-building gestures, joining UN-led peacekeeping efforts, and slowly getting a handle on public relations (screw-ups like the Thanksgiving port call denial notwithstanding). And, though Beijing has a long way to go to be a true partner to the West in contributing to development and stability in Africa and other poorer countries, the fact that Chinese leaders have recently accepted the need to play such a role is a huge advance - just five years ago no Chinese leader would have conceded that such issues deserved a place on China's agenda. Internally, the topics open to political debate, and the variety of views that gain a hearing, widens every day. China's economy is becoming increasingly sophisticated, as is the government's economic management. Monumental challenges remain, but these pale in comparison to the ones that China has only recently surmounted.
Meanwhile, Russia has clearly backtracked on all of these dimensions. In the last few years it began to use its natural gas exports as a weapon with which to cudgel its neighbors into submission. It is resuming risky long-rage bomber flights that serve no strategic interest, but just might accidentally cause the end of the world. The economy is hollowing out, relying more and more on a resource base that is quickly dwindling. Russia bases troops on the soil of another sovereign country (Georgia) that doesn't want them there, and may yet succeed in provoking a war. The last vestiges of an independent media and opposition are being harassed, arrested, purchased, or assassinated out of existence. There is a good chance that the election Putin won in 2000 to solidify his grip on the presidency may be both the first and last transfer of power through free and fair elections in the country's history. The only comfort (and a cold one it is) for countries on the receiving end of Russia's bullying is that the country seems intent on drinking itself to death, and will be a vastly diminished force in 20 years.
If current trends continue, in ten years China is likely to be a vastly freer, more prosperous, and more responsible country. The thought of Russia continuing down its current path for another ten years is utterly horrifying.
That's why analysts, writers, and policymakers alike worry more about Russia than China. China will face the challenge of maintaining its momentum, and the world the challenge of adapting to its growth. But Russia faces the challenge of arresting its decline internally, and the rest of the world the challenge of resisting its growing aggression.
The threats from China are all latent, and decreasingly likely to actually occur (though China's growing power does mean the consequences would be more serious if conflict with China were to occur). The threats from Russia, however, are explicit, and immediate.