World War One started with diplomatic failure to solve geopolitical differences but without wide ideological differences among the combatting nations. World War Two also began after what seemed at the time to be a diplomatic failure, although the nations involved were mainly driven by the ideological differences between authoritarianism and democracy (The Soviet Union’s alliance with the democratic side being a very large anomaly). Cold War One started when democratic powers came to believe that the Soviets’ ideology, as well as that of its new authoritarian partner China, threatened their existence. It also became an ideological contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Now we have a warning that Cold War Two may be about to start, with Russia and China joined at the hip.
I refer to the charade (or was it?) that went on in the background while we watched last week as Russia threatened to invade Ukraine. Putin took a day off from his threatening, perhaps, the largest and most deadly military action in Europe since 1945 to join Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to launch the Winter Olympics and unveil a new, extensive, and aggressively worded agreement between the two countries that seemed to announce their intention to lead the authoritarian countries of the world in contest for global power against the United States, its NATO allies, and other democratic countries. Some experts in international relations have likened it to a possible new Cold War, calling it “Cold War Two.”
This agreement, which runs to about 5,000 words, is unlike any previous agreement between Russia and China. It appears to be a pledge of mutual support—China is clearly supporting Putin’s objectives in Ukraine (whatever they are) and Russia is supporting China’s longer-term objectives in Taiwan, which are clearly to regain Taiwan, by force if necessary. It goes further in mutual support than China and Russia have ever gone before, pledging their mutual stance against the US and the West, and the rest both ideologically and militarily.
China’s ambitions do not run through Moscow, and Chinese leaders are very cleverly using Russia to foil or disrupt the US pivot to Asia, which continual crises in Ukraine and in eastern Europe continue to do
This new agreement does not reach the level of a formal military alliance like NATO, with its provisions to come to the aid of any member if they are threatened. However, it is the strongest statement of mutual support that the Russians and Chinese have ever produced. One expert on Russia quoted in the press said she had never seen a joint statement from the leaders of the two countries “using this kind of language…they’ve joined forces.” She called the agreement an inflection point in which Russia and China are challenging the balance of power that has defined the global order since the cold war ended three decades ago. She went on to add that the agreement puts the US and its Western allies in a bind as “whatever we do to counter what Russia is doing only reinforces its reliance on China.”
And in the present instance, China has become an enabler and endorser of Russian aggressions for the first time since Putin became Russia’s leader. China did not support the Russian move against Georgia, nor the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now the two are pledged to stand against what they define as intervention from “external forces” to undermine stability and security “in their common adjacent regions.” They have the power to define “external forces” and how far their “common adjacent regions” extend. I should point out also that both have the veto power in the United Nations Security Council.
But will this new pact, between two deeply authoritarian superpowers, overcome their mutual suspicion and antagonist past and redefine global power relations? The answer, I suspect, is that the odds are against it. These two superpowers would be formidable against the US and Western democracies if the alliance were to work. China is, for the present, useful for Russia right now as a supporter of its campaign in Ukraine. But as mentioned, China did not support Russia in its previous aggressions against Ukraine. And China has very vital commercial interests that it will not want to injure in many of the NATO countries that are grouped against Russia in the Ukraine crisis. Thus, while China will support Russian aggression and transgressions when and where it serves Chinese interests, it is unlikely to be comfortable with Putin’s desire to restart the cold war against the West.
China’s imprint in South Asia will not be made much different by this new Sino-Russian agreement unless it is sustained and grows into that kind of partnership, which seems very unlikely
Experts on China believe that China wants this agreement to boost its influence across the Eurasian continent, perceived as part of a powerful combination of two nuclear powers that will deter other major powers and give it more political clout where its interests are keen, such as the Taiwan strait. Experts say that China’s ambitions do not run through Moscow, and Chinese leaders are very cleverly exploiting Russia’s many weaknesses and using Russia to foil or disrupt the US pivot to Asia, which continual crises in Ukraine and in eastern Europe continue to do. Nor have the Chinese forgotten the condescension with which they were treated with by the Russians for many decades after the communists took over China.
As far as I can see, most of the benefits at present of this agreement are going to Russia, particularly in getting China’s support in its Ukraine adventure. But many sources believe that the Chinese would not be pleased with an extensive Russian invasion, aimed, perhaps at regime change. This argues for a limited Russian invasion perhaps to get full control of the eastern part of Ukraine in which most people are Russian speakers. This would bolster China’s keen desire to take Taiwan back and ensure Russian support if it comes to military action. But I think the Chinese have built too many bridges to the West economically to want to burn those same bridges by joining Cold War Two on the ‘bad guy’ side.
The other question of interest, in the context in which my articles are almost always written, seems to me to be what impact, if any, this new agreement will have on South Asia. And the more that I think of it, the less impact I think it will have. I started writing this with the assumption that this new agreement had maybe a 50-50 chance of being an inflection point in international relations, but as I have written this, I have talked myself out of that.
My assumption as I write this last paragraph is that the agreement has much less chance of developing into a formal NATO-like arrangement, which it would need to do to bring long-term change to the global order.
China’s imprint in South Asia will not be made much different by this new Sino-Russian agreement unless it is sustained and grows into that kind of partnership, which seems very unlikely. China will continue to be Pakistan’s best friend and largest creditor; India will probably heave a sigh of relief that the agreement will not make China any more competitive than it already is in South Asia; Bangladesh and the smaller countries will continue to mull over Chinese assertions that its political/economic model is better than anything offered by the West and pick and choose carefully, or in some cases not too carefully, among the many enticements China will continue to offer.