Tuesday May 28, 2024
Tuesday May 28, 2024

China warily watches wobbly Russia after Wagner mutiny

2023 Jun 26, 17:00, Hong Kong

Throughout the history-making 24-hour revolt of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries, the China Daily's lead was a story entitled "How does it feel to receive a reply letter from President Xi?" Caught off-guard, China was strangely silent on this sudden threat to the Russian government. In fact, it was not till late on 25 June that China's Foreign Ministry commented. It tersely stated: "This is Russia's internal affair. As Russia's friendly neighbor and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports

Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity." That was it! When Tsar Vladimir Putin was facing his severest threat, Beijing maintained an eerie silence. Simultaneously, President Erdogan of Turkey publicly supported Putin and proffered help, while Iran offered to send revolutionary guards to Moscow. Yet China remained quiet.

Another brief and tepid comment emerged after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko met Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in a prearranged meeting in Beijing on 25 June.

The Chinese government said the two "exchanged views on international and regional issues of common interest". Earlier, Rudenko met Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, and they vowed to defend common interests in the face of a "complex and grim" international environment. Xi previously described Putin as his "best, most intimate friend", yet on this occasion Xi proved extremely slow in showing support. It raises the question whether Xi actually does have good foreign friends. He may have an affinity with Putin, but perhaps their bond instead comes from their shared objective of weakening American influence and dominating their respective spheres. Xi proclaims that "the world is undergoing changes unseen in a century", and he sees China at the forefront with Russia at his side. Yet Xi's vision is looking rather shaky.

The news of the Wagner Group's revolt is entirely inconvenient and embarrassing for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for it goes against the grain of all Xi's pronouncements. Xi, when he met Putin in March, positively exulted over jointly building a new world order. Yet it turns out that Putin's hold on power is far from secure. On page two of the Xi Jinping Thought Study Outline 2023, it says: "The developmental trend of the rise of the East and the decline of the West is increasingly prominent." Will Xi turn out to be presumptuous in his assessment, for the events in Russia create serious doubts. Of course, Xi will explain this away - perhaps even in his own mind - that this mutiny was the fault of Western manipulation. Xi will be genuinely alarmed by this development. Putin is a fellow strongman, so how could things devolve to such a state in both Russia's war in Ukraine, and the restive atmosphere in his military? Xi believes autocratic rule is the only viable mode of governance, and yet alarming cracks are appearing in the brittle facade of Putin's kingdom. China experienced its own short but sharp threat during the so-called "white paper protests" of November 2022, as citizens spontaneously reacted to Xi's draconian COVID-19 restrictions.

China urged "national stability" in Russia, but stability will surely prove illusory after Putin commenced a war that few wanted. "Stability" is not easy to attain, and it might prove even more challenging to maintain.

China's fixation with "stability", something that was repeated ad nauseam during Hong Kong's protests, shows the true fear of the CCP - instability. And what causes instability? People. This is the deep-seated terror of all communist and totalitarian regimes, that the people seek to throw off the yoke of tyranny. This is a prospect intolerable to Xi and the CCP.

We would do well to remember China's frantic terror during the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s. China was horrified as oppressive regimes toppled one by one, because it feared something similar at home if citizens got it into their heads to demand freedom.

As during the Arab Spring, the CCP and many ordinary citizens are fearful of a domino effect. If Russia falls, China could be next, they theorize. Any fall of Putin could jumpstart independent ambitions within China's populace, for instance, or it could leave China to stand alone against the West as the last bastion.

There is a Chinese proverb that says if the lips are gone, the teeth will grow cold. It means that two parties can share a common interest but, if one side is hurt, then the other will suffer too. This is how many Chinese view the symbiotic relationship with Russia, that their fates are entwined.

In actual fact, Prigozhin's objective was not to achieve a governmental overthrow, but to attract Putin's attention and impose a discussion about conditions to preserve his Wagner Group's activities. This was a bid to save his money-making enterprise and, when Putin rejected viciously, Prigozhin quickly backed away from the role of a revolutionary.

However, given the paucity of accurate and unbiased information in China, this nuance would have been totally lost on the average netizen there. Nonetheless, all weekend, visitors to Chinese social media feverishly typed and posted. One contributor enthused, "You can do it, Russia!" while many expressed grievous fears of civil war: "The show is on"; "Old pal Putin's end-game is worrisome"; or "This conflict ends. The 'Great Goose' [a colloquialism for Russia] civil war begins".

One poster made a comparison to the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 AD, when a frustrated general and confidante of the emperor captured the eastern capital and pronounced himself as emperor. His rebellion eventually failed, but it did weaken the Tang Dynasty. Other netizens jested that, if Russia collapses, China can reclaim territories lost to Russia more than a century ago.

Naturally, the red line between acceptable and unacceptable on Chinese social media is fine, and sometimes blurred. People have to be circumspect, and any sentiment opposing the Ukraine war is thus often implied or circuitous. This could have been the case with Yu Jianrong, a leading liberal voice, who re-shared a video showing Rostov-on-Don residents yelling at Russian police moving in after Wager troops had departed.

Some netizens might say Putin is weak or that the Russian people are tired of war, but this is as far as they dare go in raising a dissenting voice from the official CCP narrative. Others warned that this mutiny was a "very foreseeable development" or that "the government has lost credibility due to corruption".

John K. Culver - a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub - commented that Beijing's assessment of Putin's actions is "Bold! But strategically incompetent!" Indeed, there is much derision from China over Russia's abandonment of communist ideals and its plunge into insignificance. They put this down to Moscow's wayward ideology, something that China will not emulate.

Culver added, "Beijing has deep strategic interest in ensuring that Moscow - and Putin personally - remains a viable ally in blunting US power ... Most importantly, Beijing has a strategic need to keep Russia from internal turmoil or international setbacks that could result in the rise of a regime that is hostile to China. One of the greatest gifts to Beijing of the Sino-Russian rapprochement [has been] a passive 4,200-kilometer border."

Xi might regard Putin as a friend, but there should be no question that the Chinese leader will support Putin only as long as it suits his own agenda. After Myanmar's 2021 coup, which resulted in a bloody and protracted civil war, China dismissed it as a mere "internal cabinet reshuffle" and swiftly shifted allegiance to the military government. Beijing will surely have no qualms about backing a different horse in Russia if it serves its own interests.

Culver concurred: "In that context, China will support Putin if he remains in charge in Moscow. If Putin falls, Beijing will wait for the dust to settle and cultivate the new power structure, perhaps with a fresh chance to counsel that Russia extricate itself from Ukraine and refocus on long-term competition with the United States/Western alliance."

In truth, Xi has little ability to influence or shape events in Russia in terms of this dispute with Prigozhin. China, still feeding its feeble narrative that it is neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war, will avoid taking sides publicly.

A great fear is increasing isolation for Xi and China, and this will result in official hints that Putin must remain in power. China's paramount leader has thrown in his lot with Putin, and it would be a severe blow if Xi lost his closest strategic ally, especially with Russia already acting as a subservient junior partner. Xi is not going to backpedal in his ideological hatred of the USA and the West either.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, commented: "It contradicts the narrative of Putin as a strong leader who enjoys the full support of his people, and is here for the long haul as China's global partner of choice. And supporting a strong and sustainable Putin is worth China paying short-term diplomatic cost for, even during Putin's widely criticized war on Ukraine - it's a long-term investment in a long-term partner. But if Putin's rule is unstable, then supporting him is bad business."

Putin has merrily outsourced military operations to the private sector, of which the Wagner Group is the most prominent example. This venture-capital foreign policy has seen mercenaries fighting for Russian interests in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali, for instance. Operating outside the standard military chain of command, such private armed groups rely on patronage networks with Putin.

Could factions within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) break away in the same way that the Wagner Group did? It is extremely unlikely, given the PLA's strict political control and fealty to the CCP, but it will be a worrying thought in the back of Xi's mind. If he launches a military campaign to conquer Taiwan, and it bogs down in the same way that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has, could fault lines appear in the PLA? This prospect gives Xi something new to worry about.

One unit of the PLA reposted on its Sina Weibo account a comment about Mao Zedong revamping the PLA in 1927 to ensure absolute party control over the military. This was an apparent dig at Russia, where Putin has lost the support of military forces.

Xi's insistence on the PLA's absolute loyalty to the party is understandable in this light - he cannot permit factions or dissent when he asks it to do his bidding. A big difference between the two nations is that there is no equivalent to the Wagner Group in China. Yes, China uses private contractors in places like Pakistan, to provide security to Chinese interests, but such groups do not have influence or a presence at home. Putin has created a monster, and it has got out of control amidst his ailing war.

The Wagner Group's revolt will surely expose doubts in the regular Russian military too, of which scared and ill-equipped conscripts make up a large proportion.

Political change in Russia typically comes when three factors occur: a divided elite, a dissatisfied public and an absence of fear. The first two certainly exist, and if Putin lets Prigozhin get away with his rebellion, he will appear weak and there will be a corresponding lack of fear from potential adversaries.

In its apologetics, the Global Times tabloid argued that "quelling the revolt in such a short period of time actually consolidated the authority of the Putin administration".

This is fantasy, for this Wagner Group episode instead showed that Putin's rule is not

ironclad; some are even contending that he might be on his last legs. At the very least, Putin's regime has lost a lot of luster and legitimacy.

Putin no doubt realizes that the longer his war drags on, the more his credibility and

his hold on power is threatened. This may make this lame duck even more desperate.


russia Wagner group china Xi Jinping china daily China's Foreign Ministry
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