How the World Changed in 2015 in Asia
For Russia and China, 2015 was a year of increasing cooperation, enduring domestic difficulties with a brave face, and implementing bolder foreign policies.
The Trumpet’s first issue of 2015 included an article about the new reality: “The Russia-China Axis Is Here.”
“We’ve been looking for this seismic geopolitical event for half a century,” the article says. “And now, somewhat suddenly, it has arrived.”
2015 began with the Russia-China axis in place, but over the last 12 months, the axis grew more solid. It also grew broader—pulling other nations such as India deeper into the Russia-China orbit.
It’s impossible to review Russia’s navigation through 2015 without placing it in the context of the pivotal year that preceded it.
In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the world by breaking Europe’s postwar order and annexing the Crimean Peninsula. By making this peninsula part of Russia, Putin redrew the world map in his region. Soon after, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine.
This alarmed the Western world, prompting some leaders to accuse Putin of reverting Russia back to 19th-century behaviors.
But Putin was undaunted by Western criticism. When 2015 began, it appeared that Russia was essentially trying to hold on to the gains it made in 2014, despite sanctions from the West.
However, these sanctions were not just an inconvenience for Russia. With European leaders staying fairly united against Moscow, the sanctions regime held fast and the Russian economy incurred significant damage.
Yet Putin continued to garner sky-high approval ratings among his people.
Russians were excited to be viewed as a world power once again. In 2015, they proved that they are willing to withstand economic suffering if that’s what it takes to reduce America’s global influence and make Russia a major world player.
That was how the first half of 2015 played out for Russia.
But then something quite unexpected happened: Putin launched an unprecedented military intervention in Syria.
The intervention had many analysts perplexed. What is Putin thinking? they thought. What are his goals? Sure Assad is a key ally for Putin. Sure Assad guarantees the survival of Russia’s only Mediterranean naval port at Tartus. But this intervention came during a time of $40-per-barrel oil and sanctions from the West—both of which are taking a toll on Russia’s economy. (The data for 2015 is still coming in, but it looks like the Russian economy shrank by 3.8 percent for the year, suffered 15 percent inflation and an eroded ruble.)
Yet despite all of this, Putin launched campaigns in Syria. The reason why shows that in 2016 Putin will likely be even more ambitious and even more willing to take risks than he was in 2014 and 2015.
The reason Putin intervened in Syria was largely because he saw that America was retreating from the Middle East. He jumped on the chance to demonstrate to the world that the United States is no longer the go-to global policeman and that Russia is a mighty power. The move also let him display to his allies that Russia, unlike America, will stand resolutely by its comrades.
These are the goals at the heart of Putin’s calculus. These goals show why he is willing to maintain policies that cause economic suffering for Russia.
A recent Foreign Policy piece explained:
The only thing we know for sure is that Putin is intent on showing the world Russia is a great power and that he respects strength and takes advantage of perceived weakness. He pushes forward until there is pushback. This of course, is the story of the past 400 years of Russian history.
Another key trend that accelerated within Russia during 2015, and which has been a major driver in Putin’s domestic popularity, is anti-U.S. propaganda. State-controlled media paint all kinds of events as being U.S.-coordinated conspiracies designed to weaken Russia. The pro-Western change in Ukraine in late 2013 was depicted as a U.S. plot designed to undercut Russia. The well-oiled propaganda machine lays all the blame for Europe’s migrant crisis, the Charlie Hebdo attack and the November 13 Paris terrorist attacks at America’s feet. This propaganda provides Putin with a nasty nemesis that helps to depict him as Russia’s great protector.
On the last day of the year, Putin named the United States, for the first time, as one of the threats to Russian security.
Putin’s increasing ambition has frightened Europe in a way that is causing changes throughout the Continent: European defense spending, which had been shrinking for the last 10 years, is now expanding; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are petitioning for permanent deployment of nato forces throughout the Baltic region; the Swedes are contemplating joining nato; and Europe’s far-right parties are gaining power.
Looking ahead to 2016, we can expect Putin’s Russia to be even more ambitious and even more willing to take major risks than it was in 2014 and 2015. That’s in large part because Putin knows that time is not on his side.
He knows that at present, European Union nations are still not integrated enough to present a unified front against him. And he knows that as long as President Barack Obama is in the White House, the U.S. is unlikely to do more than gingerly chide Russia for its aggression. Putin calculates that after President Obama leaves office in January 2017, the situation could drastically change. He reckons that if someone like Donald Trump or Marco Rubio becomes the next U.S. president, then his season of license would come to an end. Putin knows he has 12 months until that might happen. That indicates that in these next 12 months, we could see more and larger pushes from Russia against global stability.
In 2015, China followed Russia’s lead by reshaping the geography and redrawing the map in its region.
Throughout the year, news watchers saw a series of satellite photos of Chinese workers dredging up sand from the seafloor and pumping it onto submerged coral reefs. This was happening at seven different locations throughout the vast South China Sea—some of them as far as 800 miles from the Chinese mainland.
As the months went by, the images showed the workers paving over the sand, transforming the coral into seven artificial islands.
China then converted these islands into military hubs. It built fuel storage facilities, ports, surveillance posts and airstrips on them. Beijing used these new bases to assert ownership over vast swaths of disputed territory in the resource-rich South China Sea.
These islands comprise just a few square miles of turf, but they provide a tangible representation of the broader goal China worked toward during 2015.
Like Moscow, Beijing wants to change the international order. China is weary of the era of U.S. global rule and is pushing against global stability in order to bring down the curtain on that era. China is also eager to be recognized as a great power in its own right.
In the last week of 2015, China openly challenged America by making an incursion into the waters near Okinawa. Okinawa is key to the U.S.-Japan alliance, and it is the core of America’s military presence in Japan. This incursion was among Beijing’s boldest moves of the year.
2015 also saw China establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or aiib, which was a direct challenge to America. Trumpet columnist Robert Morley explained the motives behind this bank in July:
This past March marked a radical turning point for the global economy, particularly the United States’ economic dominance. China proposed the launch of the aiib—a new, Chinese-run international bank specifically designed to challenge U.S. global economic leadership. America tried to convince other nations not to agree to join. But it failed—even with its closest allies. For the U.S., it was an unmitigated disaster. … The global embrace of China’s aiib has been a major embarrassment to America. It dramatically highlights the loss of U.S. power, prestige and political pull.
We shouldn’t understate the economic trouble China faced in 2015. The stock market meltdown, called “Black Monday,” shows that China’s economy is fragile in some ways and that the stellar growth it has enjoyed over the last decade may not be sustainable.
But economic troubles at home could prompt China to be even more aggressive abroad in the year ahead. It is a tried-and-true technique for China to quell domestic unrest by undertaking pushy foreign-policy moves. This distracts the populace from its discomfort and dissatisfaction with its leadership. It can whip the citizenry into a frenzy of patriotism and rally it behind the leadership. If the Chinese leadership decides to make good on its long-standing promise to bring Taiwan officially under Beijing’s control, it would galvanize the population.
As with Russia, time is working against China. Like Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping knows he has 12 months until President Obama could be replaced by a hawkish American leader. That may well mean that in these next 12 months we could see more and larger pushes from China against global stability.
Turn the Page
During 2015, Russia and China were the main players to jockey their way into the vacuum left by America’s global retreat. They were among the primary drivers pushing against the post-Cold War status quo. In the year just beginning, we will see more cooperation between them and more bold behavior from both—possibly to a degree that makes us look back nostalgically on the “peace” of 2015.