President Xi Jinping of China saw his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as having similar views on military strategy and the use of their military forces. Both nations use similar methods to train officers. China modeled its senior military schools on those used in Russia. Both nations depend on “political officers” to monitor loyalty and troop capabilities. Both countries cooperate closely on military planning and the use of information war and Internet-based operations. Both countries have a long history of corruption in the military during peacetime. The Russian tradition of corruption goes back centuries while China has had similar problems for thousands of years. China and Russia have formally adopted plans for even closer military cooperation, including a 2021 agreement to create a common roadmap for even closer military coordination and cooperation over the next five years.
Since the 1990s China has modernized and expanded its armed forces while Russia was having a hard time replacing aging Cold War era equipment and the loss of 80 percent of its military personnel after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Currently China has larger and better equipped forces than Russia. This had never happened before. Since both nations have nuclear weapons and many delivery systems, China sought to maintain good relations with Russia. At the same time China sought to continue learning from its neighbor, especially in light of the more extensive combat experience of Russian forces. Chinese troops have not been in combat since the 1970s, when they were defeated by fewer but more experienced and motivated Vietnamese troops. That border war was a stalemate, which was a victory for Vietnam. China has not forgotten that. Russia has suffered similar defeats since the 1980s in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Xi Jinping believed he understood how the Russian military planned and carried out military operations. He was impressed by the carefully planned Russian operations operation effort that quickly and bloodlessly took control of the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. A similar operation a few months later in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) was less successful. China believed the Russians would come up with solutions to their problems in Donbas and efforts to eventually annex all of Ukraine. Meanwhile the Chinese studied the Crimea and Donbas operations for useful insights to help them gain control of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
With all this in mind, China was surprised at how badly Russia prepared for and carried out their 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Russian failure in planning and carrying out that invasion was unexpected and it had repercussions beyond the military. That’s because both Xi and Putin are both artificial dictators. Both men manipulated existing methods of periodically selecting new leaders to give themselves lifetime tenure. Post- Soviet Russia is a democracy that Putin managed to modify to turn him into a dictator for as long as he could hang onto power. China was technically a democracy from 1910 to 1947 when the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and its leader Mao Zedong took control of China, but there was no clear plan for a successor. When Mao died in 1976, senior CCP leaders agreed to a plan where they would select a new supreme leader every five years and prohibit anyone from holding more than one term. It was also decided to adopt a market economy and encourage Chinese to expand that economy and get rich in the process. The CCP was still in control and through more than three decades of unprecedented economic growth China became the second largest economy in the world. A decade ago, that economic growth began to stall and in 2012 Xi Jinping was selected for a five-year term as leader. In 2017 he persuaded the PSC (Politburo Standing Committee) which selects a new leader, toallow him to break the rules for selecting a new leader and allow him another term. It was granted and that led him to play a more active role in selecting the seven to eleven members of the PRC and give him a third term. The PRC was the senior portion of the larger Politburo which contained a lot of older, retired, CCP officials who were highly regarded and listened to when they objected to something. These CCP elders opposed Xi’s efforts to get a third term as leader of China. Xi is blamed for the problems with covid19 and the growing foreign military alliance formed to oppose Chinese expansion efforts. These failures are attributed to Xi and he is now considered part of the problem. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is in a similar situation but showing no willingness to consider the welfare of Russia or his catastrophic misjudgments and incompetent planning for the Ukraine invasion.
A major difference between China and Russia is that the Chinese study and learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others more frequently than Russia does. Russia did not pay attention, especially to what was going on in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022. China was surprised at the failure of Russian forces to quickly conquer Ukraine and the fierce resistance that tore apart the invasion force. The Taiwanese have been particularly encouraged by the success of the Ukrainians in developing a defense that worked against a delusional and overconfident invader.
China has paid attention to how Ukraine prepared and how the West responded. This is important for China because of their plans and efforts to take possession of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan was also paying attention, especially since 2014 and increased its preparations to defeat a Chinese attack. This has cost Xi a lot of the CCP support that has kept him in power.
Many Chinese business leaders and entrepreneurs are also worried. The 1980s reforms of Deng Xiaoping, to replace the “dictator for life” model that failed for Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler and Mao Zedong with one that a system that kept a socialist dictatorship in power while allowing a market economy and term limits on the national leader. This worked so why change it? That’s what worries the business community and overseas customers and investors. Xi Jinping feels the abandonment of term limits is necessary so that he can deal with the corruption that has always been a major weakness of Chinese culture and governments. Yet the return to one man rule for life brings with it other potential pitfalls. One is unexpected and often arbitrary changes in laws and a growing dependence on nationalism to maintain sufficient popular support. Stressing nationalism has put China into conflict with most of its neighbors as well as the United States and Western nations. Putin followed the same strategy and is now facing opposition that could turn into a coup. China believes it has moved beyond that and now has to prove it. The alternative is returning to the two centuries of civil war and power struggles that the CCP sought to replace with stability and prosperity. That also means taking a closer look at the anti-corruption efforts Xi applied to the Chinese military and a reassessment of just how effective the increasingly expensive armed forces are. Similar Russian military reforms proved exaggerated and disastrously ineffective in Ukraine.