On Friday, Beijing marked the 120th anniversary of the start of the first Sino-Japanese War, which ended in a crushing defeat of China. This year—once in February and then in June—Xi Jinping referred to this anniversary, mentioning how the conflict resulted in Japan taking Taiwan from the Chinese state. China’s leader, who believes he must “reunify” his country, remembers 19th century grievances as if they arose yesterday.
Nobody tops Xi when it comes to irredentism, not even the fellow who called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century and who is now doing all he can to reacquire former Soviet lands. Vladimir Putin is roiling one country—Ukraine—but China’s supremo is now destabilizing an entire region, in a sweeping arc spanning China’s south to its northeast.
For one thing, Xi wants Taiwan, which unfortunately for him has become a vibrant self-governing society with little interest in being absorbed by a hard-line authoritarian state. For another, he wants to intimidate Japan. To that end, he planned Chinese incursions into territorial waters and airspace administered by Tokyo around the Senkakus in an attempt to seize the eight tiny islands. Moreover, Beijing policymakers are now even talking about taking Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain. Xi is thought to be the driving force behind Beijing’s November declaration of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which includes the sovereign airspace of Japan and closely abuts South Korea’s.
His fishing fleets regularly intrude into South Korea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and pick fights with the local coast guard. He lays claim to Seoul’s Ieodo, a rock in the Yellow Sea.
Furthermore, Xi is making a major move on the South China Sea, international water that he considers to be an internal Chinese lake. There, he is fortifying contested reefs, shoals, and islets; pressuring a Philippine garrison defending Second Thomas Shoal; and placing drilling rigs where they should not be, including waters surely within Vietnam’s EEZ. Xi believes his China extends more than a thousand miles from its shores, closely abutting Brunei and Malaysia. He is pressing claims to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
Finally, Chinese troops regularly make deep incursions into Indian territory, well south of the Line of Actual Control, because the Chinese leader covets large chunks of land long considered parts of India.
Xi, with an attitude much like the Russian leader’s, does not seem overly concerned about maintaining friendly relations with China’s neighbors or keeping the good will of the international community. He strides across his region, the Putin of Asia.
And like Putin, Xi sees the United States as standing in the way of his nation’s taking of territory from other states. Although the Chinese ruler is more careful with his words, both suspicious men think Washington is conspiring with their neighbors to frustrate their expansionist goals.
Xi and Putin also share something else, domestic vulnerabilities. Putin, some believe, chose this time to create crisis in part to distract the Russian people, who have been manifesting their unhappiness in the streets. There is also plenty of discontent among the laobaixing—common folk—in China, but the especially dangerous signs of stress appear at the top of the Communist Party. There, Xi has been ferociously attacking the patronage networks of other senior figures as well as the groupings in the People’s Liberation Army, all under the guise of an “anti-corruption” campaign that has the hallmarks of a political purge.
So Xi, like his Kremlin counterpart, is embarking on misadventure abroad, partly with the purpose of consolidating his position at home. Both Xi and Putin, in short, lead troubled societies.
Two men are makers of history at this time, with grand ambitions and the will to pursue them. These ambitious figures are now disturbing peace and tranquility, one in Asia and the other in Europe. They may not be coordinating their actions, but they are now acting at the same time, making this moment especially consequential.