31 Mar 2018
The rise of Leninist autocracies threatens Australia
No one really saw this coming, but 2018 will be remembered as the year Leninist autocracies returned to threaten global peace.
Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China have consolidated their personal hold on power, turning what were already vicious and corrupt one-party states into countries led by the cult of a single personality.
Stoking populist nationalism for support, Putin and Xi are on a high-stakes gamble that utterly rejects the international rule of law cherished by Western politicians and diplomats. They are out to reshape the global order by bluff, threat and the use of force if necessary, to build stronger international influence for Russia and China.
If the gamble pays off Putin and Xi could lead their countries for another decade or longer, essentially as personal fiefdoms, where no view other than theirs can survive under the tight surveillance of repressive political systems.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Russian occupation of Crimea, NATO countries deluded themselves into believing that cooperation with Russia would turn Moscow into a post-modern social democracy.
Australian Defence White Papers can politely welcome China’s rise, but its long over-due that we dropped the wishful thinking that a wealthy Communist China would somehow become more open and pluralist like western democracies.
Against all expectations the opposite has happened. After brief periods of economic reform Russia and China have become steadily more authoritarian. Putin and Xi have steadily purged their political opponents, modernised and feted their military forces, consolidated their personal power and reached deeply into so-called ‘private’ businesses to extend their influence.
Both leaders have been skilled at manipulating popular opinion through social media to get domestic support for audacious military operations in Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea.
After Putin’s manipulated election ‘victory’, and Xi’s tightened grip on the Chinese Communist Party – most recently shown by abandoning the two-term limit on occupying the Presidency – we are seeing the rise of a new type of 21st century-enabled Leninism taking hold in several countries.
This is a form of authoritarianism far more controlling than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin pioneered after the Russian revolution a century ago. Social media and modern instruments of surveillance give Putin and Xi the potential for much more intrusive control over every aspect of life in Russia and China.
The implications for global security are dire because at the heart of Putin and Xi’s strategy is the need to keep populist nationalism focussed on Russian and Chinese muscle flexing abroad and away from the discontents of domestic life. For as long as flag waving Chinese patriots are visiting Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, and for as long as the ‘Belt and Road strategy’ looks to be extending China’s influence globally, President Xi knows he will keep enough of the population on-side to protect his leadership.
Beyond China and Russia, variations of Leninist-style authoritarian regimes are on the rise. North Korea – led for three imperial generations by the Kim family – has emerged as something like a Zimbabwe with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un threatens the world with an increasingly credible arsenal of nuclear weapons. Visits across the demilitarised zone by K-pop bands and a handful of Olympic athletes do nothing to improve real prospects for peace.
Trump and Kim may yet pull off a diplomatic miracle if they ever do meet. But getting to that leaders’ summit will be incredibly difficult. In the meantime, we must assume that Kim continues to refine the few remaining technical hurdles to developing reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles, with accurate targeting and miniaturised thermonuclear weapons.
I have been writing for some months that the prospects of a serious war on the Korean peninsula are around 50/50. Nothing since the Pyeongchang winter Olympics and the prospective Trump-Kim summit changes that conclusion.
For Kim Jong Un, the offer to meet Trump buys him time to develop his weapons. A lot can be done without having to launch missiles or do major nuclear tests. Kim gets the benefit of pressing South Korea and the US to weaken sanctions and has secured a propaganda coup at home by appearing to bring Trump to the negotiation table.
For America the calculation is different. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies know that the time frame Kim needs to perfect a reliable nuclear weapon is down to a few months. Once Kim has that reliable weapon the window closes on a possible military operation to disarm the regime.
Over seventy years North Korea has perfected the art of diplomatic and military brinksmanship – forcing multiple crises on its neighbours and the US to extract aid and other concessions. The threat of acquiring nuclear weapons has been used over twenty-five years to extract billions of dollars of aid from the west while Pyongyang had not the least intention to give up its nuclear program.
Now the United States is being asked to treat the North as a reliable partner that will stick to the stable conventions of nuclear deterrence. What chance is there that Donald Trump will risk New York being vaporised in a thermonuclear blast on the calculation that Kim Jong Un has turned his regime into a responsible nuclear power?
We should all hope that a Trump – Kim summit can find a way through this dilemma. Certainly, Trump isn’t burdened by any knowledge of past negotiations with the North, nor is policy consistency his goal. Kim, on the other hand shows that he knows how to play a good game of poker. Perhaps the combination of these skills can produce an outcome of a type that Barack Obama, Clinton and two Bush presidencies could never produce. Then again, perhaps there will be war on the peninsula. Its 50/50.
Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing – the first in his seven years as Supreme Leader – is a masterstroke. Much as the Chinese leadership cannot stand Kim personally and dislike his nuclear ambitions, there is no way that China would let Kim meet Donald Trump before he had a face to face meeting with Xi Jinping.
While Kim was feted in the Great Hall of the People Chinese media stressed that a supposedly close and traditional friendship with North Korea would never be weakened ‘because of one-time events’ like the Kim trump summit. China will probably start to weaken its sanctions against the North to keep their little ally on side. Kim Jong Un’s position is strengthened before he even meets Trump.
The Islamic Republic of Iran would not welcome the title of Leninist autocracy, but it’s nonetheless an accurate description of how Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, runs the country. The Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, military intelligence and security agencies, and has sole authority to declare war or peace.
While the West has largely focussed on defeating the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, Iran has pursued an active military agenda to secure its status as the dominant power in the Middle East. Iranian military forces and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters prevented the likely fall of Bashir al-Assad in Syria. Iran has secured undue influence in Iraq even as Australia and other western forces were pounding IS in Mosul and elsewhere. Iranian proxies in Yemen continue to fight a disastrous war, dragging in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
What’s emerging from the wreckage of the fight against the Islamic State is the even more worrying strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There’s some risk that the two regional giants might shift from fighting each other with proxies in neighbouring countries to a far deadlier state-on-state competition.
Last Sunday while visiting the US, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, told the CBS News program ‘60 Minutes’ that his kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did. That’s not an idle threat. Saudi Arabia is moving forward with an expansive nuclear power generation program and enjoys a close relationship with Pakistan, which offers the most obvious conduit for nuclear weapons proliferation.
If the Kingdom looked like it was about to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran could quickly shelve its nuclear deal with the Obama administration and key European countries – the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – and take the relatively short sprint it needs to develop its own nuclear capability. Twelve months of concentrated effort could see the Middle East’s two greatest rivals nuclear armed.
Western intelligence agencies are packed to the gunnels with analysts who have been tracking these developments for years. Collectively they will say that nothing I have set out here comes as a surprise. Yet it should be alarming to the political leaders of our democracies that Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are presenting a newly sharpened set of threats to our collective interests – in each case threats backed with nuclear weapons, or the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons quickly.
Analysis is one thing, but as Lenin asked in 1902 ‘what is to be done?’
In January this year US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released an unclassified summary of the US National Defence Strategy. The statement is barely eleven pages long – Australian policy makers please note – but it makes clear that Jim Mattis at least understands the nature of the threat.
The National Defence Strategy lists China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as being the ‘principal priorities’ for the US Defence department. Mattis worries that the US has been in a period of ‘strategic atrophy.’ The Strategy says America will ‘strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.’
Put aside the military terminology, what this means is that America will be pressing Australia, Japan, South Korea and other partners to take on a greater national security burden.
Malcolm Turnbull says that America expects nothing from Australia in return for their concessions on steel and aluminium tariffs, or that Trump won’t expect something in return for taking asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island. I doubt that. Trump won’t forget his favours and the administration has a sharpened set of expectations about what they and key allies need to do to respond to an unravelling security outlook.
China’s transformation into a Leninist autocracy is, to say the least, inconvenient from an Australian perspective. Since Deng’s economic reforms Canberra has wallowed in the comfortable certainty that China’s rise could only be a good thing for Australia. We have loved the money which flowed as a result, but the bill, with all the hidden costs of becoming too dependent on an emerging Leninist autocracy, is now being delivered.
What should Australia do? Step one: toughen up a bit and work out where our strategic interests lie. With practice China will get used to the idea of an Australia that can say ‘no’ to too much foreign investment, or to foreign students who don’t welcome genuine academic independence.
It’s a major advance that Australia and the US joined more than twenty countries to kick-out Russian intelligence agents, operating as ‘diplomats’ but really engaged in spying. Russia’s attempt to kill a defected double-agent in the UK needed a strong and shared western response. Putin risky use of military force around Europe’s borders and in North Asia could lead to clashes. But he won’t be cowed because his leadership relies on massing Russian nationalist chauvinism against the West.
Step two, we need to double our investment in alliance cooperation with the US and with like minded partners in the region, most particularly Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Sadly, New Zealand’s failure to join other democracies in expelling Russian spies and Wellington’s cow-towing to Beijing shows that this is one old ally that has already given up the fight for western values.
Step three, its too early for another Defence White Paper, but a strategic update is needed, and Defence must turn its mind to how well the military is placed to handle short-notice conventional conflict situations. It would be absurd to pretend that the risk of such flash-points is not significantly higher.