Zhou Bo is a retired senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army before (PLA) and a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University.
The enthusiasm of international relations pundits for talking about whether we have entered into another cold war is not surprising. It is like guessing the sex of a baby to be born. One has a 50% chance of being right. Not bad at all! The problem is that we shall only be able conclude it's a cold war when the prospect of an all-out war has eventually disappeared.
Predicting the future is a difficult business. But, presumably, three things will shape how the first half of the 21st century looks: the war in Ukraine, China-US competition in the Indo-Pacific and the rise of the “Rest” in contrast to the decline of the West in a changing world order.
Although no one knows how long the war in the heartland of Europe will last, no war lasts forever. The worst outcome would be for President Putin to decide to use a tactical nuclear weapon as a game-changer, while the best outcome would be an armistice, which no one likes. Ukraine can only fight on with the seamless and endless support of the West; this is not a sure thing if the war turns out to be one of attrition. Russia has failed to make obvious gains, but it can sustain the war given its advantages in manpower, military industry and an economy that is not substantively crippled by the war.
It seems probable that a new “Berlin Wall” will eventually appear in Ukraine. This will change Europe’s security architecture. Europe will have to live with a Russia that is much weakened but far more dangerous. It will be more dangerous precisely because it is much weakened, but still has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
The war in Ukraine will most certainly accelerate geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts from the West to the East. The Biden administration had hoped to put Russia policy on a “stable and predictable” footing in order to focus on China, which it perceives as a long-term threat. But the war has undoubtedly distracted America’s attention and syphoned off resources.
Cynically speaking, if there is consensus - the only consensus - between Beijing and Washington to avoid a conflict, then probably we are already in a new cold war. What makes this new cold war different, though, is that this is a rivalry between two giants, rather than two blocs. Washington could not lead an anti-China alliance and Beijing could not lead the Global South against America. All countries will deal with China and the US carefully, with pragmatism, making choices on specific issues, rather than blindly picking sides.
Much has been said about Taiwan becoming the next Ukraine. But a war in the Taiwan Strait is not inevitable so long as Beijing believes peaceful reunification is still possible. So far, Beijing has not lost patience. This is reflected in its defense budget which is still lower than 2 percent of its GDP, as it has been for decades. It is also reflected in the PLA’s second military exercise around Taiwan, in April. Unlike the first one, which involved live firing of weapons, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan, Beijing’s April response was more calculated and measured, with only simulated attacks.
Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, two trends are likely to continue: the shrinking influence of the West and the further rise of the Rest. According to a Freedom House poll the western democracies have been in steady decline for 17 years. In contrast, countries are queuing to join the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement and the BRICS. Talk of trading with local currencies instead of American dollars is getting louder.
Should the world be afraid of China? This is the first question I was asked by Die Zeit in a recent interview. If the same question is asked of someone from a Global South country, I guess the answer, like mine, will be “no”. The major difference between Chinese and western involvements in the Global South is that China acts and delivers without moralizing. If there is a competition to win over third parties, the US-led West is very much losing to China, especially in Africa and Latin America.
At the Munich Security Conference this year, China and Russia were put on one side and the West on the other side, to mark a democracy-autocracy cleavage. Such a simplistic black and white picture is not how the world looks. Even if both Beijing and Moscow talk about a multipolar world, their world views are subtly different. Beijing is the largest beneficiary of the globalization that depends on the existing international order; Moscow resents that order and considers itself a victim of it. As its relations with Washington grow steadily worse, Beijing has at least maintained a plausible relationship with the West; this appears to be impossible for Moscow now.
But when China and the West talk about the international order, are they talking about the same thing? The prevailing idea in the West is that the international order after World War II is a West-led “liberal international order”. This is narcissism. Although many rules, regimes and even institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and GATT/WTO were designed and built by the West after World War II, they are primarily found in the economic field and cannot define a whole system. The international order should include, among other features, different religions, cultures, customs, national identities and social systems. And it must address globalization, climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation, to name but a few.
It remains to be seen whether China can surpass the United States to become the largest economy in the world by 2030. This won’t matter much economically in that any difference will be marginal. But it will have a psychological impact. The world will perceive a new dawn to have arrived. This will not be a Pax Sinica. Rather, it will be a return to common sense: nations rise and fall. The only “city upon a hill” is the empty temple of the Parthenon.