There has been significant global attention on how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the post-Cold war global order and, in many ways, even the post-second world war security architecture. Is it head under the sand or clinging to what was familiar – but that order started unraveling at least about a decade back. The action and consequences have not even begun to manifest properly.
It is difficult to define what this post-cold war (started from the 1980s) era meant, but let me characterize some key aspects. A unipolar world with the US as the main power, a system where at least in theory conflicts b/w states were to be resolved through international forums and where aggression against fellow states would attract global action. All major powers made efforts to avoid each other’s ‘red lines’ (e.g., conflict in Europe) and where nuclear deterrence was a major theme. This scenario depended on the US alliances in Asia, NATO and other fora in Europe, and the balance of power in the Middle East. In the Ukrainian quagmire, the main disquiet is about Russia triggering a ‘total’ land war at the heart of the European continent. A war no longer dependent on proxies (as in some Middle Eastern countries) or a limited incursion (as in Crimea), or even the US mission in Afghanistan/Iraq, which had the justification of 9/11 and international backing.
But the story of change began earlier. Though pinning the exact date is impossible, the dispute between China and Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2011-2012 could mark the beginnings of this shift. At this point, China started to turn Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your strength, bide your time mantra into Xi Jinping’s ‘show your strengths, now is the time.’ The events post that – Hong Kong, Xinjiang, militarization and maritime conflicts in Asia and Myanmar – have ushered in superpower rivalries, diluting the aspect of unipolarity. These developments have coincided with a real or perceived decline in the US’s strength – a change in global economic patterns and a polarized and inward-looking West. Russia is not a part of this superpower rivalry. But Putin is striving because the West and its allies have been unable/unwilling to respond unitedly to his challenge. Nor do his ambitions, or rather the wherewithal to affect them, go beyond respect and power in his ‘near abroad’.
Contrast that with China – a gigantic economic, political, military, and ideological machinery being built for global dominance. China is the world’s second-largest economy, a vital link in critical supply chains, and a country creating dependent infrastructure globally. It has sought to make up for gaps in its conventional military capabilities through a strategic focus on aspects that will give China the advantage over the west in its ‘near abroad’, i.e. the Indo-Pacific. This includes the world’s largest navy, advanced ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, air defense systems and cyber and electronic warfare technologies. China’s support for rogue regimes is one of the reasons they are punching above their weight.
Developments in China, especially since the Covid outbreak, have belied the German belief in “Wandel durch Handel’ – that trade and economics will liberalize and stabilize the Chinese communist party (CPC). Instead, actions like the border conflict with India, maneuvers against Taiwan, repression in HK and Xinjiang, a crackdown on its tech giants, and the increasing cult around Xi have abounded. These are indicators to a country on the path of internal authoritarianism & belligerence in security and military affairs.
In the longer term, threat to the world order as we know it, of an actual global conflict, is developing from China. Its logical beginning will be from the Indo-Pacific with ramifications across the financial, cyber and digital space. It will mirror the political developments in the West – especially as the world’s ‘dominant power’ – the US gets more polarized. It will move parallelly with the international financial system where factors can challenge the dollar dominance –
a) the slowing but still formidable Chinese growth engine and its Belt and Road initiative,
b) countries looking for alternative payments networks – both rogue regimes and China’s key trading partners and
c) disruptive technologies like DeFi, crypto and digital currencies. It will reflect a divided global system where ‘piecemeal’ Chinese aggression will either be ignored or only partially sanctioned – further emboldening the CPC.
And if and when China reaches a point of no return (beyond HK, territorial islands in the SCS) to reach Taiwan and maybe India – the world will have a real problem.
Of course much can change in the geo-political chess board – including economic ‘hard landing’ in China – the list of unpredictable events is long. However, looking at the events unfolding now – once the Ukraine issue settles and the world moves beyond its impact on markets, energy and other supplies, it will be business as usual. The changes are coming from another quarter and with different challenges. The US military realizes this. A recent Pentagon annual report substantiates Chinese preparations for a two-front war scenario – a military threat to Taiwan and escalating border tensions with India. Their vision document emphasizes the creation/re-training of forces that can move quickly from island to island instead of fighting on land. The intensity of regular US Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Indo-Pacific has increased. However, the US military is divided into several fronts with issues in the ME and now active conflicts in Eastern Europe. The US, the West and other stakeholders in Asia need to be prepared for a Thucydides Trap. A trap where an emerging power will threaten to displace an existing dominant force, increasing the likelihood of a pervasive conflict. If the West has been unable to deal with a much weaker and a limited ambition Russia – its options for a more formidable China need to be re-assessed.