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Beware Aggrieved Empires

Beware Aggrieved Empires

China sent 71 aircraft and
seven ships toward Taiwan in
a 24-hour period, while Russia
shelled the Kherson region more
than 70 times.
These acts of aggression —
occurring 5,000 miles apart, one
in a grinding war of attrition, the

other as part of an ongoing polit-
ical and diplomatic struggle that

may well result in open hostili-
ties — are related.

It’s no accident that the two
most dangerous powers in the

world, China and Russia, are ag-
grieved empires seeking to right

what they consider the wrongs
that resulted in their humiliation
and diminishment in the 19th and
20th centuries.
Whereas in the 2000s the most

pressing problem of the interna-
tional system seemed to be ma-
licious sub-national groups oper-
ating in ungoverned spaces, now

it is malicious would-be supra-
national entities seeking to take

over spaces governed by others.

In his masterly book, “Di-
plomacy,” Henry Kissinger ob-
served, “Empires have no inter-
est in operating within an inter-
national system; they aspire to be

the international system.”

The fall of the Roman Em-
pire was a social and econom-
ic catastrophe for the West, but

it’s been a blessing that no such
over-awing behemoth ever rose
in its place.
Russia and China, in contrast,
never lost their imperial DNA,
and have chips on their shoulders.

Russia achieved some success
in its long-running ambition to
be considered a major European
power through top-down reforms
and military conquest. It gobbled
up an estimated 50 square miles a
day across a couple of centuries.
But it lost the Crimean War in the

mid-19th century, suffered a hu-
miliating defeat at the hands of Ja-
pan in 1905, and then experienced

utter cataclysm in World War I.

Marxism-Leninism was sup-
posed to provide a way for back-
ward Russia to leapfrog the West.

That didn’t happen, but Moscow
established a new Communist
empire of considerable extent. Of
course, this came a cropper with
defeat in the Cold War, an event

that Vladimir Putin, notably, con-
siders “the greatest geopolitical

catastrophe of the century.”
The man who has statues of
Peter and Catherine the Great,

accomplished Russian imperi-
alists, on display in the Krem-
lin considers an independent

Ukraine merely a tool of hostile
Western forces and a wayward
part of Greater Russia. Such
ideas — and a deep feeling of
shame at Russia’s fall — justify
the brutish attempted occupation
and dismemberment of Ukraine,
a cynical and crude operation
even by Russian standards.

If Russia sought to be a re-
spected member of the European

club, China believed it needn’t

bother. It was the Middle King-
dom, the only civilization in a

world of barbarians who owed

Beware Aggrieved Empires

it tribute and deference. Its sense
of superiority was punctured by
the Opium Wars in the middle
of the 19th century and, as with
Russia, a shocking defeat in a
conflict with Japan.
Eventually, China, too, turned
to Marxism-Leninism. After yet
more humiliation and failure, the
CCP now is fired with audacious
visions of a return to imperial
President Xi Jinping is more
or less explicit about it. He has
said that “since the Opium War
of the 1840s the Chinese people
have long cherished a dream of

realizing a great national rejuve-
nation.” Now, it is on the cusp

of providing “a new option for
other countries,” and “a Chinese

approach to solving the prob-
lems facing mankind.” In short,

“it will be an era that sees China
moving closer to center stage.”
Xi views Taiwan much
the same way as Putin views
Ukraine — it rightfully belongs
to China, and re-taking it will
help salve the geo-political and

psychological wounds of impe-
rial China’s spectacular descent

into disaster and powerlessness.
“We cannot lose even one inch
of the territory left behind by our
ancestors,” Xi told a U.S. official
in 2018.
The war in Ukraine shows
that when an autocrat ruling a
once-great empire speaks in such

terms, it is time to arm the target-
ed state to the teeth and dispense

with all illusions.

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