The Ukraine invasion might not quite be Russia’s last hurrah, but the frailties of a declining power are becoming ever more apparent. The failure of the Russians to achieve a swift victory only confirms a trend for superpowers: even with determination and military superiority, victory, if at all, is a hard slog. Meanwhile, economic sanctions have cut Russia out of the international financial system and it has little back-up, including from China. Even long-standing friends such as India have been unable to offer fuller political support to Russia given its obviously illegal action.
The United States, freshly chastened from its failure in Afghanistan, has resisted the temptation to take a more active military role in its support for Ukraine while simultaneously encouraging the Europeans to be more involved both diplomatically and militarily. Russian threats to use nuclear weapons do not change this reality, unless, of course, they actually use them, in which case, every other certainty of global politics, indeed of life, itself will change.
Russia’s halting pace and big threats demonstrate that cold wars are the only possibility for superpower rivals with matching destructive military capabilities. With the decline of Russia, eyes turn to China as the upstart power the US might have to contend with. A new cold war with China seems likely. But China is a different contender than the Soviet Union and its successor state.
As sharp as the ideological conflict between the US and China is becoming, Chinese communists will have no wish for a while yet, if ever, to imperil regime security by pursuing active conflict. Economic growth and development at home are as much a part of the ideological conflict as political influence externally and military superiority over the US.
The Chinese are far more able to prosecute an ideological conflict than a military one. China’s decades-long pursuit of asymmetric military capabilities has received a great deal of attention but this is not all it learned from the sole superpower left standing at the end of the Cold War. The Chinese also learned to pursue political influence across the globe, through large embassies and one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world, huge investments in foreign policy studies at universities and in think-tanks, and training, scholarships and fellowships targeted at foreign government officials and political elites.
China’s leaders have worked assiduously for decades to decouple their country’s economy from the global economy in strategic sectors and to build up self-reliance. China’s efforts in these directions suggest it sees dangers from Western dominance of the international financial system. They also suggest that China does not believe active conflict is the only, or most feasible way to undermine such dominance. Rather, Beijing’s toolkit includes non-tariff barriers that block free and fair trade — not just for the US but also for countries like India and even close partners like Pakistan, and economic coercion such as against Australia or Lithuania.
The nature and distinct features of the Chinese political system have also meant Beijing has been able to develop some unique approaches of its own. For example, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has developed interactions with political parties in other countries, including training programmes in countries as far apart as Madagascar and Nepal.
Frequent high-level diplomatic visits from the Chinese president, premier or foreign minister are complemented by visits from other members of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, the Politburo and leaders of provincial governments. It has also carefully cultivated ties with business elites as well as the Chinese diaspora in many countries. Together, these elements have buffered China from concerted actions by national governments and their security agencies.
In fact, China has multiple reasons to both refrain from direct warfare and seek alternative ways to prosecute its rivalry with the US/West. By the CPC’s own admission, China is only a “moderately well-off” country and says it has only recently eliminated absolute poverty. Income inequality, regional disparities, environmental damage and energy insecurity all remain problems that will require a degree of Chinese dependence on foreign markets and technologies to resolve.
China’s territorial aggrandisement from the South China Sea to Nepal and India are unlikely to lead to major conflict because the US — as in the case of Ukraine — does not see these instances as worth a direct conflict with China. Even India, who could have exercised a punitive response to Chinese provocations, refrained.
Groupings like the Quad, or a Russia-China dyad, far from setting off active conflict, actually limit its chances. The Quad members have scrupulously stuck to non-traditional security co-operation, which for now precludes collective military action against China.
Chinese support for Russia has remained limited to the diplomatic and economic, and even here, not entirely fulsome. The fact that the Chinese are at this moment promoting a new Global Security Initiative is more diplomacy and distancing from Russia than anything else. If co-operation scales up to conventional security co-operation, it will likely set constraints on physical conflict given that the consequences will become clearer to the opposing party.
Meanwhile, fears about Taiwan as a flashpoint ignore several facts. The CPC will not want its timetable set by the Russians or anyone else. Unlike Ukraine, which developed over a few short years, Taiwan has long been a problem that the principal players have developed patterns of behaviour and familiarity with.
While Taiwan is not a US ally, it is a contingency the US and its allies, including Japan, have planned for. They will very likely get involved in any conflict, increasing the costs for China. Russian military stumbles and the effective Ukrainian resistance will also give the Chinese pause, given that from structure to equipment to doctrines of modernisation, the Chinese Army has drawn a great deal from the Soviet and Russian armies. The domestic political polarisation in China over the Russian invasion will also give the Chinese leadership reasons to think.
None of this means that a new cold war between the US and China will be any less consequential than an active conflict or that there will not be proxy wars. The extraordinary risks the chief protagonists of the first Cold War took on were the result of a sense of do-or-die ideological conflict.
China has not abandoned the Communist versus non-Communist divide. Rather, it has sharpened the divide between single-party authoritarianism and liberal democracy and overlaid this divide with notions of Chinese cultural and civilizational superiority. The new cold war is only likely to be fiercer than its predecessor.
Originally published at multiple outlets. Jabin T. Jacob, ‘The new cold war will be fiercer’, Telangana Today, 25 May 2022.