Dictators’ best friends

April 28, 2021 09:19
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro  Photo: Reuters

Dr Sasa, the exiled special envoy of Myanmar’s disbanded parliament, recently urged Western countries to coordinate their punitive actions against the military junta who staged a coup against the democratically elected government, and who have violently repressed the mass protests. Sasa’s petition came as the United Nations Security Council failed to reach a consensus on punishing the junta, due to oppositions from China and Russia.

Myanmar is not the only country where dictators have benefited from support from China and Russia. Other “rogue” regimes such as Venezuela, Syria, Iran and Belarus are also beholden to China and Russia for their survival from political crises and crunching international sanctions.

China and Russia have been more actively opposing the acts of intervention of the West in other countries’ domestic political situations, through which both try to promote an alternate foreign policy principle of mutual non-intervention. In light of this trend, dictators stand a better chance of survival riding on this newly developed activism of China and Russia.

Support from Russia and China comes from three fronts: economic, diplomatic, and military.

Economic support

The West usually adopts the tool of economic sanctions against regimes that are accused of violating human rights or undermining democracy to pressure them into conformity. The most recent example is the sanctions against the Myanmar military regime, including the head of the junta General Min Aung Hlaing, and two major military-controlled companies: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.

China and Russia, in defiance, support these sanctioned regimes by continuing to maintain economic relations. For example, China has continued to import heavy crude from Venezuela through a complex transaction structure, according to an investigation by Bloomberg. The oil industry in Venezuela has been subject to sanctions by the West. In the midst of the heightened Sino-US power competition, China does not even bother covering its track anymore. In March 2021, China reached an economic and security agreement with Iran which will see the former investing USD 400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years in exchange for discounted Iranian oil, which has also been heavily sanctioned by the US. Trade with China is so critical to the economically embattled Iran that the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif praised China “a friend for hard times.”

Diplomatic support

The West also asserts diplomatic pressure on dictatorships. Typically, western countries go to intergovernmental platforms such as the United Nations to publicly name and shame those regimes and through which to diplomatically isolate or even to impose multilateral sanctions against them. Again, Russia and China have these regimes covered.

In UN meetings, China and Russia use their political power to reject or at least delay any condemnations and punishments against their friends. In addition to Myanmar's military junta mentioned above, the Maduro administration in Venezuela has also been a beneficiary of such support.

Nicolas Maduro, the successor of the late President Hugo Chávez, has been locked in power competitions with the opposition led by Juan Guaidó since the defeat of the former's United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the National Assembly election in 2015. Maduro, who has stayed in power largely through brutal repression, is currently recognised by Russia, China and a small number of countries as the legitimate president of Venezuela; whereas the administration led by Guaidó is recognised by over 60 countries. Russia and China have played a key role in shoring up Maduro’s international legitimacy. For example, in 2019, Russia, China and South Africa rejected the UN resolution proposed by the US and other western countries which called for holding new elections and a recognition of Guaidó’s self-proclaimed presidency. The rejection by the three effectively blocked Guaidó from gaining further legitimacy in the multilateral diplomatic platform. Notably, the endurance of the Maduro administration appears to have worn out the EU’s resolve, which recently dropped its recognition of Guaidó’s interim presidency.

Military support

If economic and diplomatic pressure cannot change a regime’s behaviour, the West may resort to the use of force. This could be done by directly sending troops to battle with the regime or giving military support to the opposition, including sending weapons and providing strategic military support such as imposing a non-fly zone to protect rebel forces. Military intervention worked well for the West during the Kosovo War, for example. China and Russia indeed know all too well about this last resort. Russia, in particular, has ramped up military support to its friends to deter the western military threats.

Again in Venezuela, due to the alleged attempt of Guaidó to seek power by force, Russia backed the Maduro government by conducting military exercises with Venezuela’s forces and also promised to facilitate the development of Venezuela’s military capability. All these send a message to the West that Russia would not tolerate any military interventions against Maduro. Outside Venezuela, during the 2020 mass protests against the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Russia then promised to send the military to help Lukashenko quell the protests if necessary. The move, if executed, would have significantly boosted Lukashenko’s survivability and completely dashed the hope among protesters that the West would intervene in any meaningful ways.

The Arab Spring - when China and Russia were no-shows

Dictators in the Middle East were much less fortunate, when Russia and China were no-shows. Since the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2010 which saw the long-serving President Ben Ali overthrown, one by one autocratic regimes in the Middle East were ousted or forced to carry out political reforms amidst mass protests and revolts. Russia and China back then largely stayed out of these crises. To be sure, the China and Russia factor is far from sufficient in explaining those downfalls, but at least President Assad of Syria and his minority tribe, the Alawites, were practically saved by the Russian military intervention from the brink of total collapse fighting against various Syrian rebel groups.

Towards a bright future for dictators

China and Russia give hopes to dictators, especially during the time when the relative power of the West is in decline. The economic, diplomatic and military support from the pair help shield dictators from sanctions by the West, and as a result pay a much lesser price for what they do against their political opponents. To be sure, as a caveat, the West has dictator friends as well, such as the late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the late Chadian president Idriss Déby. In this sense, China and Russia play the role as an important alternative for those dictators who lose favour with the West, which happens to have quite a few.

So, if you are a military leader preparing to stage a coup to overthrow a civilian government or to violently quell nationwide protests against you, you know who to ring for support.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

The writer is a global political and compliance risk consultant with a special focus on Asia.