Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, by all accounts, was an historic moment in foreign affairs and international relations. The meeting between Xi and Putin, as well as the resulting signing of several agreements in the domains of trade, economic, military, and technological cooperation, were nothing short of a declaration of the demise of the unipolar world order dominated by the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Xi proudly proclaimed that change which “had not been seen in 100 years” was coming. This statement did not convince many observers, including Atlantic Council president and CEO Frederick Kempe, who perceived the event as nothing more than Beijing’s open support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
With Russia’s pivot to the east, however, the world is more likely witnessing a seismic change and a return to the same world order that governed international relations during the second half of the 20th century, a renewed Cold War.
All of this would have seemed far fetched just a couple of years ago. With Russia’s constant groveling to be accepted as a “great power” in the eyes of the West, China’s reach and ambition had been all but curtailed to a regional role—with only minor incursions into in places like Africa, where a lack of global attention opened up voids the Chinese felt comfortable filling.
Today, however, and after signing several agreements and memoranda of cooperation, particularly in the fossil fuel, nuclear energy, and military technology sectors, the world is facing a conjunction of forces that is morphing two regional powers into a political camp with the potential to act as a superpower in the very near future.
What makes this alliance between Russia and China troubling for the current world order is the complementarity of their weaknesses and strengths. China has a robust and growing economy, expected to surpass that of the United States within the next decade or two, a major limitation of Russia, which historically has struggled to balance its ambitions with its resources.
Russia, on the other hand, has the technology and natural resources China still needs to advance its global standing and power, despite the Asian behemoth’s great leaps in those domains during the past decade.
Furthermore, there is no indication that the two powers are diverging on any topic of contention where observers expect their national interests to contrast, particularly in Central Asia, where both Russia and China exert overlapping influence to varying degrees. For the moment, their foreign policies seem to be perfectly in sync with one another.
The rise of a competing geopolitical rival to the United States is not the only indication of this return to a Cold War. The fact that this adversary is concretely positioning itself as an alliance that is an antithesis to the current global unipower leaves no room for question. This Eurasian alliance is expecting conflict with the West and might even be insistent on it.
But what is equally interesting is the reappearance of the Cold War’s often forgotten player, the Third World.
In a recent piece, Brian Jenkins observes this reemergence when considering the position of most non-Western nations on the war in Ukraine. Most of Africa and Asia remain, to this day, neutral in a conflict they perceive to pit Russia against the United States. Jenkins also notes that, similar to their stance during the Cold War, most of these countries adopt neutrality primarily out of “reflexive antipathy” for U.S. foreign policy.
The rise of this revitalized Third World should be understood to mean a more encompassing and global attitude toward the standing global order of the past three decades. The spirit of the Bandung Conference of 1955, which set the framework for Third World neutrality, is alive once more.
India is competing with China for Russian oil purchases, Chad is nationalizing foreign interests in its economy, South Africa wants to spearhead BRICS efforts, and several African nations are contemplating a common African bank to try and divert from the use of the American dollar in international trade. These news stories from the past two months read like similar headlines from the Cold War era, when decolonization politics were at their apex.
Even close U.S. allies have taken this chance to distance themselves, as they see opportunity in the shifting global order. For example, Saudi Arabia has been trying to gain some autonomy from the United States and has adopted energy policies in line with Moscow’s interests over the past year, much to the dismay of Washington, particularly in a post-pandemic era when global fossil fuel prices needed to be kept in check. The last time the Kingdom took such a step was at the height of the Cold War in 1973.
The rise of a serious contending superpower with a solid political block supporting it, a reemerging block of neutral countries, and a looming political, economic, and even ideological conflict on the world stage look like strong indicators a neo-Cold War is already under way. Xi’s visit to Moscow was but an open declaration to this effect.
If the United States hopes to maintain its current status as the leading world superpower, its foreign policymakers need to recognize the changes to the international system and reassess America’s position and positioning in it. Primarily, they need to recognize that the United States can no longer afford to invest itself in each and every international crisis, while its own home front is vulnerable to political, economic, and financial disasters.
As for the rising global order, we must remember that the Cold War era was a period of relative global stability. The clashing interests of the two superpowers at the time were negotiated through multiple means, violent or otherwise, but never led to direct confrontation between the two belligerents.
Xi’s vision of changes that we have not seen in over 100 years takes us back to one of history’s greatest dark periods, however. At that time, rising regional powers created belligerent pacts and alliances to try and cement their geopolitical position, leading to a World War that cost the lives of more than 40 million people. It is in everyone’s best interest to try and avert this scenario.