Planet Strongman

In his 2020 bestseller Rage, Washington legendary journalist and author Bob Woodward recalls discussing the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy with the President. Mentioning his dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the war in Syria, the commander-in-chief said: “I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says ‘What a horrible guy’. But for me it works out good. It’s funny the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know?”

In his captivating recent book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press), Financial Times foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman quotes former National Security Affairs specialist Fiona Hill when she declared that her former boss was seduced by “autocrat envy”. From Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) to Vladimir Putin, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 45th President got along quite well with those whom he perceived as being strong, an expression easily interchangeable with being autocratic. This trend was confirmed early last month when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) gathering in Dallas, Texas.

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« La guerre d’Ukraine a contribué à une détérioration des relations sino-américaines » – Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Les présidents chinois, Xi Jinping, et des États-Unis, Joe Biden (source Al Jazeera)

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Je publie aujourd’hui la deuxième partie de l’excellente entrevue que j’ai récemment réalisée avec le sinologue et auteur réputé Jean-Pierre Cabestan.

Professeur, à la page 132 de votre livre Demain la Chine : guerre ou paix?, vous écrivez : « La mauvaise nouvelle est que même si les États-Unis remportent la bataille du blocus [contre Taiwan], ils ne sont pas certains de gagner la guerre : Taiwan est plus proche de la République populaire que du continent américain et Pékin est probablement plus résolu que Washington à arriver à ses fins. » Observez-vous une baisse de détermination chez les élites américaines par rapport à Taiwan?

Non pas pour l’instant, et pas du tout dans un avenir prévisible. Cette considération porte sur le long terme et surtout dans le contexte postérieur à une tentative chinoise de prise de contrôle de Taiwan par des moyens militaires. Le rapport des forces actuels dans le Pacifique occidental contraint déjà les États-Unis de recourir à des moyens asymétriques pour espérer contrer toute opération de l’APL (Armée populaire de libération).

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« L’invasion de l’Ukraine par la Russie complique les choses pour Xi Jinping » – Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Source: Financial Times

Dans la foulée de ma recension de son dernier livre, le sinologue réputé Jean-Pierre Cabestan, qui est professeur de sciences politiques à la Hong Kong Baptist University, a généreusement accepté de m’accorder une entrevue. Étant donné sa longueur, j’ai décidé de la publier en deux parties.

Puisqu’il y est question de la Chine et de l’impact de la guerre en Ukraine sur les relations entre Pékin et Washington, ses observations mettent en lumière une dynamique incontournable dans les relations internationales.

Voici le contenu de notre échange.

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Professeur Cabestan, dans votre excellent livre Demain la Chine : guerre ou paix?, vous évoquez souvent la notion de « passion et de poudre ». Nous en observons actuellement une manifestation ailleurs sur le globe, en Ukraine. Quelle est votre lecture de l’attitude de la Chine dans la guerre initiée par Moscou en Ukraine? Pensez-vous que l’attitude du Kremlin vient brouiller les cartes pour Xi Jinping?

L’invasion de l’Ukraine par la Russie complique les choses pour Xi Jinping, et pas seulement à propos de Taiwan. Elle montre que le passage du seuil de la guerre a de multiples conséquences, souvent incalculables, et peut déclencher une escalade, voire une nucléarisation du conflit, également difficilement prévisible et contrôlable.

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Les risques calculés de Pékin

La Chine dérange. Elle inquiète. Parce qu’on la méconnaît. C’est un réflexe naturel. Sa montée en puissance, notamment sur le plan militaire où elle occupe dorénavant la première place au niveau des forces navales, fait en sorte qu’on lui impute des desseins guerriers en mer de Chine méridionale ou même à Taïwan. Ce discours est notamment alimenté par un discours manichéen omniprésent dans des interventions médiatiques fréquemment réductrices et souvent alimentées par des observateurs nageant dans une superficialité nocive. 

Dans Guerres invisibles, Thomas Gomart écrit, et il vaut la peine de le citer, que « la guerre froide a donné naissance à plusieurs générations de kremlinologues qui cherchèrent à analyser les jeux politiques en URSS et dans le bloc communiste. Rares, très rares, sont aujourd’hui les spécialistes capables de saisir les rapports de force au sein du Parti communiste chinois (PCC). » À mesure que l’Empire du Milieu prend de l’ascendant sur l’échiquier international, force est de reconnaître qu’il importe de prêter l’oreille à ceux et celles qui ont pour vocation professionnelle de bien et mieux connaître ce pays.

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“Good strategy might just be staying out of trouble” – Exclusive interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman

Sir Lawrence Freedman (credit: Boston Consulting Group)

Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.

Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.

Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.

My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).

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« Xi Jinping est, hélas, le chef d’État actuel le plus impressionnant » – général Henri Bentégeat

Le Général (à la retraite) Henri Bentégeat (source: Alchetron)

Dans la foulée de ma recension de l’excellent livre Les ors de la République (Éditions Perrin) du général d’armée (à la retraite) Henri Bentégeat, j’ai soumis quelques questions à son attachée de presse. Très aimablement, il s’est empressé d’y répondre. C’est donc avec grand plaisir que je partage cet entretien avec vous.

Mon général, j’ai dévoré Les ors de la République avec énormément d’intérêt et de fascination. Vous y brossez un portrait fascinant des présidents François Mitterrand et Jacques Chirac. Mais comme vous avez naturellement côtoyé des chefs d’État étrangers, je me demandais lequel vous avait le plus impressionné et pourquoi?

Ayant côtoyé de nombreux chefs d’État, avec Jacques Chirac ou en tant que chef d’état-major des armées, j’ai quelque peine à désigner celui ou celle qui m’a le plus impressionné. Avant la campagne aérienne contre la Serbie qui a révélé son messianisme exalté, j’aurais volontiers cité Tony Blair, tant son enthousiasme souriant, sa simplicité et sa maitrise des dossiers me séduisaient. Je retiens donc plutôt Cheikh Zayed que j’ai rencontré au soir de sa vie. Celui qui présidait au destin des Émirats arabes unis, avait un charisme peu commun et sa sagesse proverbiale s’exprimait avec une douceur ferme et souriante, ouverte au dialogue sans céder sur l’essentiel. Chirac vénérait ce grand modernisateur respectueux des traditions et faiseur de paix.

Les présidents et leurs conseillers ayant pris goût à la disponibilité et à la discrétion du personnel militaire, le ministère de la Défense a été invité à détacher à l’Élysée des chauffeurs, des secrétaires, des maîtres d’hôtel et des rédacteurs pour le service du courrier…
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The Peasant Emperor

A few years ago, media outlets reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping dined on steamed buns in a Beijing restaurant. Whether this venue was an orchestrated photo opportunity or the instantaneous desire of a world leader searching for a whiff of normalcy in the sometime claustrophobic alleys of power doesn’t really matter. Its true purpose was revelatory of who Xi is; a leader who is and wants to be close to the people.

I was reminded of that outing while reading Kerry Brown’s book The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China (I.B. Tauris), a pertinent and still timely book (2018) on the actual leader of the second most important economy on the planet.

“Of the recent leaders of China since Deng [Xiaoping], in many ways Xi is the one with the most authentic, best-known links to the countryside, and his use of this set of experiences aims to convey this.” Furthermore, and probably because he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, Xi had to make no less than 10 attempts to become a member of the Party. In a nutshell, the General Secretary of the Party didn’t get an easy pass to power. And I’m certain this resonates with many ordinary people.

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Xi Jinping: micro-manager

Deng Xiaoping (left) and Xi Jinping (right). (sources: Wikipedia and CNN)

I have always been fascinated with anything related to Deng Xiaoping. It is thus not surprising that an article from the Journal of Contemporary China caught my attention a few days ago.

In the scope of a few pages, the late Ezra Vogel compares the stewardship of Deng to the one of the current leader of China, Xi Jinping. The Harvard University academic, who passed away a few days before last Christmas, was also the acclaimed biographer of Deng, who was at the helm of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1989.

Xiaoping, in the author’s words, established “[…] the foundations for the most successful four decades in China’s history”. He rose to power at the age of 74, cumulating decades of experience, notably collaborating with Zhou Enlai and 13 years spent in the inner sanctum of power. This enviable track record prepared him well for supreme responsibility. Well versed in the discipline of power and most probably surrounded by people who were well acquainted with his methods and thinking, Deng could afford to be a macro-manager. To that end, the following anecdote told by Ezra Vogel is illuminating:

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“Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China” – Exclusive interview with Prof. Kerry Brown

Dr. Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies (source: China Daily).

After the publication of my recent review of his insightful book about the history of China (Polity Books), Professor Kerry Brown kindly accepted to answer my questions about the relationship between the United States and China – an extremely timely subject. Without further introduction, here is the content of our exchange.

Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?

I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.

In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?

Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.

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How Deng Xiaoping shaped China

“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.

And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”

Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.

While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.

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