The honey vs. vinegar dilemma for China, Russia

As their militaries expand their spheres of influence, China and Russia find resistance from groupings of nations designed on the power of attraction, not coercion.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) members inspect the withdrawal of armored vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces further from the frontline in a settlement on the suburbs of Debaltseve in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 21.

Russia, the world’s largest country by area, and China, the most populous, are in a similar bind. Like big powers of old, they are using military might to expand their spheres of influence, one in Ukraine, the other in the South China Sea. Yet they live in an era in which a country’s influence is more often determined by its pull of attraction, or soft power, than the push of coercion, or hard power. 

In short, the two giants need to decide whether they want to be more loved than feared. And their dilemma is playing out in odd ways. 

This week, for example, China will meet with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the annual ASEAN summit. Before the gathering, China insisted no one mention a heated dispute over its military enlarging small islands claimed by other Asian countries. Beijing prefers to talk about expanding trade, not its encroachment on islets hundreds of miles from its shores.

Russia, meanwhile, which took the Crimean Peninsula last year by force and is backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, tried to send a delegation to last month’s meeting of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding treaty designed to build bridges between the West and Russia based on shared principles of human rights. But the Moscow delegation decided not to attend because six of its officials are under European travel sanctions over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Groupings like ASEAN and OSCE are based on the idea that the world is better run by rules than rulers, or consensus rather than coercion. China and Russia, however, continue to bully their neighbors by intruding on their land and airspace. They can win over some nations by their economic clout, such as oil exports from Russia or trade and investment with China. But such dealmaking does not establish the kind of long-lasting trust that prevents conflicts.

ASEAN wants to draw up a code of conduct to manage the island disputes in the South China Sea. Yet Beijing is reluctant to sign on, preferring to take islands. The OSCE has some 400 observers in eastern Ukraine trying to prevent an escalation of fighting and to track Russian weapons and possibly Russian troops. Both organizations represent a world order in which security is based on each country earning respect rather than compelling it. 

In recent decades, the old way of nations carving out spheres of influence by force has faded. Russia and China, for their own internal reasons, have yet to recognize or join in this progress. But as smaller nations use multinational groupings like OSCE and ASEAN to affirm the new world order, Russia and China might be drawn to the power of attraction.

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