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Putin and Xi Think They’re Winning — and Maybe They Are

October 18, 2023

In hindsight, the last meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in China, just three weeks prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, appeared as a moment of hubris. Two supremely confident leaders were marking their bid to challenge a world order predominantly shaped by the United States and its allies. While they certainly disrupted the global order, it did not unfold as they had intended.

Putin’s disastrous decision to invade a neighboring country the size of France, treating it as a mere training exercise, has, by some estimates, led to a substantial reduction in Russia’s military capabilities. Meanwhile, China’s economic growth, akin to a supercar, has slowed down, with forecasts of surpassing the United States in current dollar terms pushed further into the future. It might be tempting to envision Xi and a more reliant Putin humbled at their reunion, with the bonds of their ‘unlimited’ partnership beginning to fray. However, as Sarah Paine, a professor of history and grand strategy at the US Naval War College, aptly puts it, this would be akin to playing ‘half-court tennis,’ where one fails to anticipate the opponent’s moves because they are not paying attention to the broader strategic game.

Paine’s analysis suggests that understanding the actions of China and Russia requires viewing them in the context of continental powers operating within a global order established over centuries by successive maritime powers, first the British and then the Americans. The distinction is substantial: maritime nations primarily focus on trade, which tends to attract allies and fosters the development of international rules, as it promotes wealth creation. In contrast, territorial disputes inherent in a continental world order based on spheres of influence often result in the destruction of wealth and value. Ukraine serves as a clear example.

Maritime powers, like the United States and the British Empire, do engage in military actions against other countries and occasionally disregard international rules to serve their interests. However, these expeditions are typically smaller in scale and carried out overseas, resulting in fewer casualties and less economic damage at home. Their primary objectives often revolve around containment and regime change to protect their interests, with a preference for stable neighboring states, as failed states tend to engage less in trade.

On the other hand, continental powers are significantly invested in territory and, at times, pursue territorial acquisition even if it harms their own economic interests. Historically, these powers tend to destabilize neighboring states to prevent the emergence of strong threats or to later absorb them. This perpetual, at times justified, and occasionally self-fulfilling paranoia also weakens their most probable trading partners.

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