Edward Snowden, Russia, And China: Implications

Judging by fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s escape to Hong Kong, and his subsequent flight to Russia (where President Putin has just said that Snowden is still in Moscow’s airport), observers could be forgiven for thinking that there was a Cold War going on between the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The Hong Kong and Russian authorities could have handed Snowden over to the US, but neither did so. The fact that they didn’t appears to suggest that Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are in no mood to be seen to be cooperating too closely with the US. Indeed, the diplomatic fallout from Snowden’s escapade is merely the latest spat between Washington and Moscow/Beijing.

The US and Russia remain completely at loggerheads over Syria, which has become subsumed into a wider power struggle between the ‘Great Powers’ in the Middle East. Superficially, Syria’s war is between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel forces, but behind these actors lie the Shi’a powers Iran and Hizbullah, and Sunni nations Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. And behind both camps lie Russia and the US, respectively.

In Asia, China fears being encircled by a loose US-led network of nations including Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and most recently, Myanmar.

This isn’t exactly a Cold War. During the Cold War, there was a genuine ideological division worldwide between the US-led capitalist world, and the USSR-led communist world. Nowadays, there are still ideological divisions between the US, and Russia and China. The US is democratic and favours the spread of neoliberal economic policies worldwide. By contrast, Russia is a heavily managed democracy with a strong state, while China is an authoritarian state with capitalistic characteristics and a generally pragmatic streak. These differences pale in comparison to the ideological dogmatism of the Cold War.

Instead, disagreements between the US, Russia, and China reflect something far more basic: power. This is not new. Ever since the US emerged as the world’s sole superpower in the 1990s, Russia and China have been struggling to counterbalance the US, either individually or by cooperating loosely. In the 1990s, both were too weak to challenge America. Russia was mired in a post-Soviet depression, and China was keeping its head low while it concentrated on economic development. In 1999, the US ignored Russian and Chinese objections to NATO intervention in Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo, and in 2003, Washington ignored Moscow’s and Beijing’s objections to its invasion of Iraq.

Now, however, Russia and China feel strong enough to stand up to the US. Both are still rather weak, geopolitically speaking. For example, Russia and China have very few genuine allies, and those that are their allies are economically peripheral countries, e.g. Belarus, Armenia, and Tajikistan for Russia, and North Korea and Myanmar for China. Nonetheless, Moscow and Beijing still have the means to push back against the US. On yesterday evening’s news channels, there was considerable speculation that the US could force the flight carrying Snowden to Cuba (a stopover point en route to Ecuador, his presumed ultimate destination) to land in the US, if it passed through US airspace. But would the US really intercept a Russian civilian airliner? In any case, Snowden was not on board.

Meanwhile, the Snowden affair is bringing Ecuador firmly under the international spotlight again. President Rafael Correa seems to be positioning himself as the de facto successor to the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, as the champion of anti-Americanism in Latin America. (Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains in limbo in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.)  

Overall, neither Russia nor China wants to strain relations with the US to breaking point. However, it is clear that both are prepared to be much more assertive towards Washington than was the case a decade ago. This is probably the new norm.