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The ‘evil empire’ is morphing into a new Sino-Russian empire

Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were still waging the Cold War, immersed in concerns about arms control and nuclear proliferation, when President Ronald Reagan, on March 8, 1983, warned against “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire” in “the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” Four decades later, those words ring truer than ever.

The “evil empire” of the Soviet Union had broken up by the end of 1991 with the fall of communist rule over the lands that Joseph Stalin had wrested from the devastation of World War II. In the relief of the post-Soviet, post-communist days, the prospects for democracy in Russia and the former Soviet “satellites” appeared quite bright.

The Soviet Union may no longer exist, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his long-running invasion of Ukraine, has visions of reviving Moscow’s role in Europe and elsewhere. From Russia’s former eastern European satellites to North Korea, he yearns to recover what he sees as the days of Russian grandeur, going back not merely to the era of communist rule but to that of the glory days of the tsars.

Nor are Putin’s fantasies of the renaissance of Russian power in eastern Europe the only reminder of the existence of an “evil empire” confronting NATO and the Americans.

We have President Dwight Eisenhower to thank for introducing another phrase, “the domino theory,” into the dialogue on China’s intentions. Eisenhower came up with that one in 1954, a month before the French surrendered to the Vietnamese communists under General Vo Nguyen Giap at Dienbienphu. “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one,” he predicted, “and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”

History rarely works out exactly as predicted. It long has been fashionable to mock the “domino theory” that held that the nations of Southeast Asia would fall like a row of dominoes if the former French colonies of Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to communism.

In China, following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the outlook for Chinese relations with America brightened after years of hostility, including full-scale war between American and Chinese forces in Korea from 1950 to 1953. I remember during China’s Great Cultural Revolution a Chinese diplomat screaming at me when I asked him about protests in the streets of Hong Kong, then a British colony.

Relations improved markedly after President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China in February 1972, meeting both Mao and Zhou Enlai. President Jimmy Carter, in December 1978, normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing. More than a decade later, in June 1989, Deng Xiaoping cracked down ruthlessly on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, but ruled as an economic pragmatist, encouraging capitalism under communist rule.

But how much has really changed? Going on 30 years after the British ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997, China under President Xi Jinping, the strongest leader since Mao, snuffed out protests that had demanded the right for the former crown colony to make its own laws and elect its own leaders.

If the nations of Southeast Asia aren’t exactly falling like a row of dominoes, one could draw an analogy to a chess match in which China is making the shrewdest moves. China may not have steamrollered over the rest of the region as feared, but it has zeroed in on finely chosen targets.  China, backing North Korea as fiercely as ever, threatens Taiwan with increasing ferocity, has claimed and fortified bases in the South China Sea, and extended its reach across South Asia and the Middle East to Africa.

As for the former Soviet colossus that Reagan, from a text written by his speechwriter, Anthony Dolan, called “the evil empire,” that image still works. For posterity, the “evil empire” label ranks as vividly as Reagan’s immortal plea four years later, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” imploring Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, to destroy the barrier that had divided east and west Berlin since 1962.

Current events bear out those phrases for which Reagan and Eisenhower are remembered. If anything, tensions are potentially worse today than they were during the Cold War. Russian and Chinese troops may face one another across the Amur River, but their leaders know “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Historically often at odds along their 1,000-mile Asian border, Russia and China are united in their zeal to push the boundaries of power against the U.S. and its allies.

The “evil empire” of old Soviet rule is morphing into a new Sino-Russian empire, as each of these huge countries pursues expansionist aims across land and sea borders thousands of miles apart. Forty years after Reagan inveighed against Moscow’s “evil empire,” everything old is new again.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags China aggression Dwight Eisenhower Great power competition Henry Kissinger Jimmy Carter Joseph Stalin Mikhail Gorbachev Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan Russian irredentism Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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