In Washington, Beijing and Moscow, officials all say that they want to avoid a new cold war. A recent piece in the New York Times suggests they have little reason for concern. It argued that “superpower rivalries today bear little resemblance to the past”. The article pointed to Russia’s relative weakness and China’s technological prowess to underline how things have changed since the late 1940s.
Those differences exist, of course. But to me, the parallels between today’s events and the early years of the cold war look increasingly convincing, even eerie.
Once again you have a Russia-China axis arrayed against a western alliance, led from Washington. Last week, Joe Biden, the US president, addressed an EU summit — while Antony Blinken, his secretary of state, gave a speech at Nato calling for western unity in deterring China’s military ambitions and Russian “aggression”. Meanwhile, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was in China, calling for Beijing and Moscow to push back against US power.
The tensions between the two sides are heightening. The Chinese air force has just staged its largest ever incursion into Taiwanese airspace. Last week, China also imposed sanctions on EU and British politicians, who had spoken out about human rights in Xinjiang. This month, Russia pulled its ambassador out of Washington in protest at what it called unprecedented actions from the US. The first meeting between top officials from the Biden administration and the Chinese government degenerated into a public row.
The line from Beijing is that the current surge in tensions is caused by Washington’s inability to come to terms with the rise of China. There is an element of truth in the idea that the US is hooked on hegemony.
But the Beijing narrative ignores the extent to which changes within China itself have driven the shift in American and European attitudes. Increased repression, the personality cult around President Xi Jinping and the flexing of Chinese military muscle have made hawkish views about China much easier to sell in the US and Europe.
As in the early days of the first cold war, a few key events have crystallised the growing unease in western capitals. In 1945-46, the Soviet Union’s imposition of satellite regimes in eastern Europe led to a fundamental reappraisal of Moscow’s intentions.
Over the past year, the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and more detailed revelations about the persecution of the Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities — now labelled a genocide by the US government — have performed a similar role in shifting western attitudes. The increasing shrillness of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy is also sounding alarm bells, playing a similar role to a series of anti-western speeches emanating from the USSR in the forties.
Until recently, it seemed that western Europe might try to remain nonaligned in a new cold war. The EU’s decision to sign a trade and investment deal with China suggested that Beijing had succeeded in prising open a gap between Washington and Brussels. But China’s imposition of sanctions on leading members of the European parliament makes it increasingly unlikely that the EU will ratify the China trade deal.
European efforts to secure a rapprochement with Russia, pushed hard by President Emmanuel Macron of France, have also gone nowhere. The increasing climate of repression inside Russia, exemplified by the imprisonment of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, is narrowing the gap between the European and American views of Russia.
In this second cold war — as in the first — there are regional flashpoints where the conflict could heat up. In Asia, some of these are actually unresolved issues left over from the first cold war, namely the status of the Korean peninsula and of Taiwan. In Europe, the front lines have moved east. It is now Ukraine, rather than Berlin, that is the focus of tensions between Moscow and the west.
During the Trump administration, the emerging rivalry between the US and China often lacked the ideological dimension of the first cold war. Donald Trump was a transactional president who was focused above all on the US trade deficit with China. According to John Bolton, his former national security adviser, Trump even privately encouraged Xi Jinping to pursue his policy of mass internment in Xinjiang.
With the advent of the Biden administration, however, ideological competition is back. Biden has said that he wants to convene a summit of democracy and is clearly intent on reasserting the US claim to be the “leader of the free world”. Like Harry Truman, who was president as the first cold war took shape, Biden is a former vice-president and Democratic senator, once looked down upon by the intellectual elite of his party, who finds himself unexpectedly in charge at a turning point in history.
Technological rivalries are once again at the heart of superpower rivalry. In the first cold war, it was nuclear technology and the space race. Today’s superpower rivalries are focused on 5G telecoms and artificial intelligence.
But the technological clash is taking place in a different context. Forty years of globalisation have ensured the deep integration of the economies of China and the west. Whether that integration can survive the intensification of great-power rivalries is the biggest open question about the new cold war.