An Authoritarian Axis Rising?

Posted on July 9, 2012

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It isn’t the “axis of evil.” But a number of authoritarian states are showing a troubling tendency to look out for each other.

It takes time for societies and policymakers to understand that a major shift in global affairs is afoot. But what we see clearly, in recent months, is the emergence of a new constellation of powers.

Such a concert of nations can only inject turmoil into the international system. It is a relatively new phenomenon that represents a radical shift in international politics, perhaps as momentous as the Soviet Union’s collapse two decades ago. By coordinating their policies, this grouping of powers is beginning to profoundly reshape global affairs, especially in the Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific, and Eurasian regions.

Who are the members of this group? Today, it includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela.

Why does it exist? Fundamentally, this new axis signals growing anxiety on the part of its members that they are “behind the curve” of history. Simply put, these states are on the wrong side of history, politics and economics – and they know it.

Its members share certain characteristics that raise questions of how it is, precisely, that they and their peoples missed the curve in building democratic states and free markets.

Most worrisome of all: we see strong evidence that they actively coordinate their foreign policies. Such coordination appears to be a relatively recent development that coincides with Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency.

Why the Axis is Emerging: Fear

Societies must ask why has this grouping of authoritarian states emerged?

There are two common fears that animate the policies of these authoritarian governments. One is their apparent fear of democracy, freedom, and liberty, which each of these societies works aggressively to curtail.

Second, these authoritarian regimes fear the power and influence of the United States and the West. As the single most powerful state in economic, military, and technological terms, the United States exemplifies the success of free societies that authoritarian societies most deeply oppose. Stated simply, democratic values, particularly transparency in government and society, put at risk the survival of these authoritarian, repressive governments.

Seeing the success of free societies, the axis represents a purely defensive move against the power of those nations. When we consider the economic and technological power of the United States, Europe (Germany, U.K. and France), Japan, and an emerging India and Brazil, among others – even when weakened by recession – the members of the axis (with the exception of China, current trends not withstanding) aren’t even remotely serious players in the world economy. This fear drives like-minded states and similarly authoritarian governments and goals closer together.

Another reason for this geostrategic realignment lies with Russia. Coinciding with Putin’s return to the presidency, he turned to strident anti-American rhetoric to bolster his domestic power and international reputation – the latter to persuade other states to join the axis against Washington. His ability to build this axis, with China’s collaboration, explains why Russia could be a significant geopolitical adversary – despite its profoundly weak economy fueled largely by petro-dollars. This has major implications in the Asia-Pacific: if China and Russia were to increase their economic and military cooperation, their power would be felt throughout the region, adding more tension to an area where the United States is already increasing its presence.

In building the axis, a critical stratagem was Putin’s decisions to skip the G-8 summit and Camp David, and instead to visit Germany, France, China, and Afghanistan before meeting President Obama. This calculated move strengthened Putin and put Obama on the defensive.

States in the authoritarian axis share many common political and economic characteristics.

These states, fearing transparency and democratic institutions, face serious levels of domestic opposition. Fundamentally unstable, such states have authoritarian and repressive governments whose leaders will impose any burden on their own people to ensure their survival. Russia, for example, arrests opposition leaders – leading some to claim that Russia has returned to Stalin-era style repression. China, likewise, arrests and hassles dissidents, some of whom have run to U.S. embassies, as in the case of Chen Guangcheng. North Korea operates a vast network of concentration camps in which political opponents die by the thousands while millions suffer from malnutrition. Iran fired on protestors and tried to silence global social media. Syria uses helicopters, tanks, and artillery to fire on the political opposition, killing perhaps as many as 10,000 people.

The members of the authoritarian axis have – with the exception of China, although recent data points to problems ahead – profoundly weak economies. Fifty percent of Russia’s national income is derived from oil and gas sales. Russia’s net capital outflow is accelerating, and its stock market is down by one-third since Putin announced last summer that he sought to return to the presidency.

By every critical economic measure, Russia’s economy is in serious decline. It has no serious high-technology industries. It’s rife with corruption. Moscow suffers from an exodus of talent, and foreign direct investment is almost non-existent. For this authoritarian petro-state, its monikers are nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, oil and gas sales, and seemingly another “president for life.”

For decades, North Korea existed in a permanent state of economic collapse, while holding Northeast Asia hostage whenever it threatens a missile or nuclear test. It can’t afford to generate enough electrical power to light itself at night – as made famous by the satellite images of Asia brightly-lit at night. North Korea can be “found” because it is the only dark place on the map.

A deeply repressive, dysfunctional society, North Korea “survives” only because China provides food and oil. Unwilling to rein in its provocative behavior, in part because it distracts Washington, Beijing likely fears that Pyongyang’s collapse will unleash massive waves of refugees heading toward China. Pyongyang’s only notable accomplishment is its nuclear weapons program. Its highly touted ballistic missile program suffered recent setbacks, but remains a sufficient concern to raise regional tensions dramatically whenever it threatens missile or nuclear tests.

In contrast with the rest of the world, these states never evolved beyond state-run, command economies. Venezuela, under the rule of President Hugo Chavez, has seen its once-booming oil industry decay. Despite the natural wealth provided by oil, Venezuela’s economy faces shortages, electrical blackouts, the highest inflation in the region, and ranks behind Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2011 World Bank’s Doing Business Report.

Iran’s economy is in a similar crisis. Despite huge oil reserves, Iran’s oil exports are down dramatically due to economic sanctions, costing Iran’s economy billions in revenue. Consumer prices are up sharply and its currency is in free-fall. Recent speculation suggests China could step in to purchase additional Iranian oil as a way to help a member of the authoritarian bloc. If Tehran became increasingly desperate, it could offer large discounts to Beijing knowing its dependency on foreign oil. Such moves only strengthen the axis.

The only exception – which, if current economic data holds, may not last – is China. Its economy is large, dynamic, and prosperous, but China’s authoritarian political system remains a powerful drag on its economy. Leaders in Beijing reportedly worry that China – without significant economic growth – is a recipe for dramatic social and political unrest that could undermine the government’s control on power.

Having sustained dramatic economic growth for decades, China’s economy by most recent reports appears heading towards a slowdown. With property values across many major metropolitan areas starting to fall, some economists now talk openly of a bursting property bubble. For others, China’s economy, having worn-out its export led model, must shift toward domestic consumption and create a dynamic service sector. With reports of over 180,000 “mass incidents” or riot-like events in 2010 alone, tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces, and domestic political chaos, China’s leaders have reason to be fearful. Its slowing economy could be the straw that breaks the “Communist” nations back.

A critical problem for the axis is that half of its members generate most of their wealth from oil and gas sales. Worse, states like Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela contribute little in the way of industry and technology to the global economy. Dependent on energy exports, these states fear that declining energy prices will throw their economies into recession and political upheaval. As energy prices drop, Russia’s economy could be thrown into chaos. Recent reports suggest that to support its budgetary goals, Russia relies on crude prices at $110.00-$115.00 per-barrel. With falling oil prices and additional discoveries of crude globally – thanks to oil sands and hydraulic fracturing – Russia rightly should fear its overwhelming vulnerability to energy prices.

Several principles govern the foreign policies of the axis states. The first is reflexive opposition to the United States. No principle seems more important, particularly to Russia, than to resist and restrain American power and influence whenever the opportunity arises.

Members of the Axis work systematically in a highly coordinated fashion to restrain, resist, and paralyze the United Nations. Using their vetoes, China and Russia prevented the U.N. Security Council from passing resolutions to stop the Syrian government from killing its own people. Beijing and Moscow consistently oppose expanded sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Another principle is apparent fealty to rules. Whether it’s the United Nations or other institutions, members of the axis claim to support international rules, but they actively oppose efforts to impose them. Opposing actions to restrain the civil war in Syria is a case in point.

Finally, these states practice the simple, yet effective, policy of supporting and protecting each other – no matter what. Russia protects Iran and Syria to bolster its own power, defend its last ally in the Middle East, and weaken or distract the United States. Similarly, Russia and China defend Syria against U.N. resolutions, while defending Iran against U.N. sanctions.

These states oppose democracy and free markets in their own societies. With these governments guided by authoritarian leaders, their visceral opposition to democracy and free markets is apparent and enduring.

They also have a tendency to threaten, and on occasion to invade, their neighbors. North Korea routinely uses language that could only be described as careless toward South Korea, and escalates tensions recklessly. China’s claim of the Scarborough Shoal, off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea, seems most troubling, and threatens to spark a regional crisis. Iran’s call for an “Islamic Awakening” to destroy Israel animates Israel to ponder preemptive attacks to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

European states haven’t forgotten that Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter of 2009 over pricing disputes. It reportedly launched cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007, and invaded Georgia in 2008.

Recently – and all the more troubling – we see signs of increasing foreign policy coordination among the axis members. This has obvious repercussions in Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Eurasia as well as globally.

While the axis recently moved to develop much stronger bonds, momentum has built over time. Russia and China over the last two decades developed a growing arms trade. In late April, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said that Russia and China agree “100 percent” on policies toward Syria and North Korea. Beijing and Moscow recently signed trade and energy contracts worth $15 billion.

China and Russia are building an increasingly strong axis of states to oppose Washington’s policies. When Putin recently visited China, he did so seemingly deliberately before seeing Obama as part of a strategy to strengthen publicly Russia’s relationship with Asia’s rising power. Those meetings in Beijing gave both states the chance to coordinate and refine their policies toward Syria and Iran.

With Syria, the broader strategy is to counterbalance American influence, while shielding Syria from U.N. actions that are designed to stop its crackdown against the opposition and weaken Syria. Syria’s demise would weaken Iran, which is Syria’s most important regional sponsor. China and Russia also formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a counterweight to U.S. influence.

Iran has increased its coordination with China and Russia. Putin met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Beijing in early June before talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, in turn, sought Chinese and Russian support at the P5+1 nuclear summits in Beijing, and later Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia gained Iran’s support for policies toward Syria, and warned against using force against Iran, while China joined Russia in opposing military strikes. Russia and Iran criticized U.S. policies toward Syria, accusing Washington of supporting rebel groups fighting against Syria’s government. Iran, too, accused the United States of arming the Syrian rebels and escalating the crisis. In a form of axis solidarity, Russia supports Iran’s ballistic missile program and opposes U.N. sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

In terms of military coordination, ties have run deep for years.  Russia sold arms to almost all members of the axis. Russia and China just recently concluded a large naval exercise in the Yellow Sea. Iran’s recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is viable thanks to Russian Kilo-class diesel submarines and anti-ship missiles likely derived from Chinese technology. Venezuela is reportedly building drone aircraft in collaboration with Iran, China, and Russia, while Russia is keen to protect its large naval facility in Syria.

Lastly, Venezuela plays a minor but still regionally important role in the axis. Venezuela reached out to China to diversify its oil purchases from the United States. In addition, Iran has been seeking warmer relations with China for years as a hedge against U.S. power and influence.

Implications for Security

What does this authoritarian axis mean for international security? What should the rest of the world do? Most importantly, what implications will this have for the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere?

The first step is for the democracies and their allies to identify the problem – and they must remember that axes emerge as a normal event in geopolitics. In practice, Russia likely is the prime mover in motivating and organizing this. It solidified at the moment when Putin, in running for the presidency for a third term, needed to strengthen his domestic base of support.

Two, China is unquestionably the most powerful state in the axis. Vastly more powerful than Russia, which Moscow certainly must understand, China likely sees Russia as an economic and political lightweight. Seeing itself as the next great power, Beijing knows that it has immensely greater clout than Russia – and may view Russia with disdain. For example, the People’s Liberation Army is developing robust “anti-denial / anti-access” capabilities to prevent the US from operating in the region. The objective is to prevent U.S. forces from forestalling Chinese motives in the near seas, in and around Taiwan or the South China Sea. This capability has only one target – U.S. maritime forces.

But this raises an important question: Why is China a member when its economy is so unlike that of the other members of the axis? In contrast with the rest, it has significant economic and technological power, but the like the rest, it has an authoritarian government. Paradoxically, China could be on the “right side of history” if its authoritarian government did not undermine its ability to become a great power.

Three, all of these states surely understand that in classic economic and military terms, they are not as powerful as the United States and the G-8/G-20 economies. Likely, leaders of the axis states believe that unless they coordinate their policies, the forces of history will overwhelm them.

Fourth, this geopolitical development has been taking shape for years, only to emerge in full-throated fashion today. The instinct is that these states, sensing weakness and confusion in American policy from wars, recession, and political divisions in Washington, reacted accordingly.

Last, this bloc has profound consequences for the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific regions, the world’s most economically dynamic region. China and many axis partners have benefited immensely from purchases of Russian military equipment. From ultra-quiet diesel submarines, to modern fighter aircraft to the engines that power its new J-20 stealth fighter, China likely would not be where it is militarily without Russia’s help. While major arms purchases have slowed between Moscow and Beijing, greater collaboration now and in the future is likely as their interests align even further.

How to Respond

Societies in the West have every reason to be optimistic about the future – and none of us wants to see another cold war. In effect, the members of the authoritarian axis are economically and politically weak – and unstable. Keep in mind that such regimes, recalling the cases of the Soviet Union, Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, can collapse unexpectedly.

Knowing that, the West’s countervailing strategy rests on three principles. First, identify regularly what the authoritarian states do, say, and stand for. Transparency is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism. Second, emphasize the power of the values of democracy, freedom and free markets, and human rights as the basis for true prosperity and power. Third, be prepared to engage the authoritarian states on the “playing fields” of democracy and freedom. If recent history is any guide, these authoritarian regimes in the long term are unlikely to survive – a reality they likely understand.

For now, if the authoritarian axis prospers, it will rewrite the rules that govern foreign policy. However, the vastly more likely outcome is that, if the West organizes itself to deal effectively with this challenge, we perhaps might see the last gasp of authoritarian states.

Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: Tufts University. He is the author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter: @BillMartel234

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