Beijing seems to be abandoning the very strategy that allowed it to not only survive the collapse of the USSR, but also prosper.
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and on the eve, 30 years ago, of the collapse of the USSR, Chinese leaders emphasized the fundamental differences between the choices of Moscow and those of Beijing.
Under Gorbachev, the USSR favored political openness over economic reform. Deng Xiaoping's China took the exact opposite route. The USSR was on the verge of collapse, a victim of its contradictions and inability to follow the United States in an arms race that it could not afford to maintain. The Chinese regime stressed economic growth and maintained a low profile in its relations with the world. Following the lessons of Bismark, if not the advice of Henry Kissinger, China saw self-confidence and self-restraint as going hand in hand.
A re-emerging empire, China had some time to kill and could have humble success. With the uninterrupted growth of the economy, the main thing was to maintain the confidence of a society that lived better and longer. And yet, it now seems that China has forgotten these wise precepts, the very ideas that kept it so long from meeting the same fate as the USSR.
The parallels between today's China and yesterday's USSR are as fascinating as they are disturbing.
The coronavirus crisis gave us an accelerated and magnified view of the "sovietization" of China. In 1956 — in the middle of the Suez crisis and unbeknownst to the rest of the world — the USSR sent its tanks to control the Hungarian insurrection Budapest. Decades later, the pandemic is arguably the Beijing equivalent of the Suez crisis for the USSR.
COVID-19 has given China a sense of impunity to accelerate its transformation of Hong Kong's legal status and also demonstrates, like with the Russian annexation of Crimea six years ago, that treaties like borders are meant to be questioned. While the Chinese government seemed to have patience for the resistance in Hong Kong, it was really only waiting for the right moment, because it's clear, to Beijing that democracies now are no more ready to die for Hong Kong than they were for Danzig in 1938 or Prague in 1968.
The parallels between today's China and yesterday's USSR are as fascinating as they are disturbing. In the Himalayas, on the border with India, Chinese troops are "rectifying borders' using a military strategy known as "salami slicing," which was also used by the USSR in the late 1940s in certain countries in Eastern and Central Europe.
The tone of the "wolf warriors'— young Chinese diplomats whose main goal seems to be to take the opposing view against Deng Xiaoping — evokes the best hours of the Cold War. At the time, Soviet diplomacy had proclaimed: "What's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable," which the Chinese seem to have taken as inspiration.
China's "one country, two systems' formula — probably more applicable to Taiwan than Hong Kong — has stood the test of time. But to only be replaced by a "one system, two nations' approach? Only time will tell. And there's no guarantee China will benefit.
Chinese strategy isn't only dangerous for the balance of the rest of the world, but for China as well. In his book Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, published in 1962, Raymond Aron summed up the Cold War with one formula: "Peace impossible, war improbable." Peace was impossible between the radically different ideologies of the United States and the USSR, but the balance of terror made war improbable.
Men collecting money to support Hong Kong protests. — Photo: Emilio Navas/SOPA Images/ZUMA
Does this same formula apply to today's confrontation between the United States and China? Is peace between two capitalist economies possible? Or is war between two self-doubting powers more probable?
Certainly there are notable differences between the Cold War of yesterday and the new one of today. In other words, America is no longer America, and China is more than the USSR. They exist in a world, furthermore, that is much more interdependent but for which the nuclear threat is more abstract.
Putting aside concern for the balance of the international system for a second, is China making the best choice by deliberately sacrificing its "soft power" in favor of its national ambitions for power? The timing seems off for such aggressive isolation, when America may very well be on the verge of regaining some "soft power" and confidence from allies with the election of a "more classic" president.
Is peace between two capitalist economies possible?
Donald Trump — through his unpredictability and extravagance — has encouraged China to move full speed ahead in its nationalist journey. His defeat in November could see China as the poor student of the world class, just ahead of Russia. The country would seem like an advocate for revisionism and lying in a world that is being made even more dangerous by it. Who knows when the coronavirus epidemic really began its spread in China: In winter? Autumn? The end of last summer?
What good has it been to invest in the United Nations and multilateralism, only to turn one's back on it with an imperative and provocative tone? China's overwhelming success in recent decades was the product of many factors, one of them being its openness to the world. China may have threatened Australia with heavy economic sanctions, but Chinese students have still benefited greatly from their time spent studying at Australian universities. Just as the West cannot "do without China," China can't "do without the world."
Thucydides considered hubris to be an important factor in the decline of the Greek city states. There is certainly a Chinese maxim that could serve as a warning in Beijing. China isn't the USSR. But it's certainly acting more and more like it.
*Dominique Moisi is a regular columnist and special advisor at the Montaigne Institute in Paris, France.