Superpower Posturing Fears Grow of New Cold War Between U.S. and China

China and the United States are lurching from one crisis to the next. It's not just deep economic interdependence that is at stake, but also global peace. Is there still a way out of this downward spiral?

In a boxy, pink building in Beijing's diplomatic quarter, sandwiched between the Iranian and the Kazakh embassies, a security guard is standing outside the gate, freezing despite his winter coat. Zhanna Leshchynska's office is located in the building behind him, Ukraine's chargé d'affaires in Beijing. Two years ago, her boss died of a heart attack, and she has been running the diplomatic representation ever since. It's a herculean task: Her country is at war, but no one in China's capital seems much to care.

It takes exactly 27 minutes to walk around the Russian Embassy in Beijing. Several apartment buildings, office towers, a hospital, two sports fields and a park are part of the huge Russian enclave over which Moscow's ambassador in Beijing presides. Until recently, that man was Andrey Denisov. Born in 1952 in Kharkiv in what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, he studied Sinology and later became a key figure in Russian-Chinese relations.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 10/2023 (March 4th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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When it came to Ukraine, the apparatus in Beijing preferred to talk to Denisov, a Russian, than to Leshchynska, a Ukrainian. "Ukraine is Russia's backyard, the Russians understand that best," European diplomats were told by officials at the Foreign Ministry. And that's the view they continue to hold today, a year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Whereas the Ukrainian ambassador to Washington was invited to the Congressional Gallery to watch U.S. President Joe Biden's recent "State of the Union Address" and was celebrated by members of Congress, Leshchynska still has to explain in Beijing who actually attacked whom in this war. "Russia is an aggressive state," she says. "Ukraine is the victim." Time and again, she says, she has approached the Chinese Foreign Ministry and pointed out that "in order to take a neutral position, it is important to talk to both sides." Unfortunately, she says, there is still no sign that the Chinese side is willing to do so.

The completely contrasting treatment of the two diplomats in Beijing and Washington is demonstrative of the enormous tension that the Ukraine war has injected into the relationship between the two superpowers. It was far from an easy relationship even before the war, but Putin's invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a geopolitical constellation that many, like former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, have been warning about for years: a "new Cold War."

The term is controversial because the politically and economically fragmented world of the 21st century is different from that of the post-World War II bloc. The nuclear arms race between China and America has not yet reached dimensions that can been compared to the one between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in the 20th century. And in contrast to the Soviet Union, the U.S. continues to maintain brisk trade relations with China, whose central bank holds $867 billion worth of U.S. bonds.

Ideological Ossification

Since February 2002, though, three developments have unfolded that are quite reminiscent of the Cold War: First, Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine is increasingly perceived as a kind of proxy conflict of the kind fought last century. Not in Ukraine itself, where a nation is simply defending itself against an aggressor, but in Moscow and Beijing, where it is portrayed as a defense against a West that is "striving for hegemony," and also in Washington, where it is understood as part of a global struggle between democracies and autocracies. At a meeting of European Union officials in Strasbourg, France, some seemed to hold that opinion, as well. Speaking there, Germany's foreign minister – likely unintentionally – said: "We are fighting a war against Russia."

Second, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, major powers have been doing what they can to line up partners and allies. Each side is rallying its "troops" – in debates and votes at the United Nations, with diplomatic missions conducted by individual politicians or through large-scale aid and economic programs. The countries that are being courted most heavily right now are those that were considered "non-aligned" during the Cold War and are now roughly grouped under the term "Global South," including India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa.

Third, the struggle has been accompanied by an ossification of ideologies – one that has been extreme in Russia, but also increasingly in Sino-American relations. The trajectory of the war has so far confirmed for Beijing and Washington the image that they had of each other: as that of an ideological adversary with whom understanding is almost no longer possible. This ideological component is much stronger today. Previously, the rivalry had been more in the realm of the power-political, the military and technology.

Chinese and Russian Interests Correspond

Whereas Moscow and Beijing were enemies for much of the Cold War, they are closer today than they have been since the founding years of the People's Republic. Like Stalin and Mao Zedong back then, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping today share their fundamental rejection of a U.S.-dominated world order – and even a deeply internalized anti-Americanism. From that perspective, Western support for Ukraine appears to be a U.S.-driven plan to expand its sphere of influence eastward. The West, Putin claimed in his February 21 address to the nation, is using Ukraine as a "battering ram against Russia" and a military "training ground." The U.S., Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesperson seconded two days later, is the "No. 1 warmonger in the world."

It's thus not surprising that experts on Russian-Chinese relations have no illusions about the "peace plan" recently presented by Beijing. "Any random Foreign Ministry employee can put something like this together," says Russian China expert Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says the paper ultimately confirms how closely aligned China's and Russia's interests actually are. Beijing isn't pushing Moscow to do anything it doesn't want to do anyway, he argues.

The fact is: China's "peace plan" isn't even a document that specifies which party should take which steps and when or how violations should be punished. It's a declaration of principles that reiterates China's anti-Western positions, goes easy on the aggressor Russia, calls for a cease-fire instead of a Russian troop withdrawal – and a lifting of all sanctions not enacted by the UN Security Council (where Russia, as a veto power, de facto makes such sanctions impossible).

"The fact that China has started talking about Ukraine is not bad."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy commented on the Chinese initiative as positively as possible for a document that neither condemns Russia's war of aggression nor outlines a concrete path to an agreement. "I believe that the fact that China has started talking about Ukraine is not bad," he said on the first anniversary of the start of the war. The question is what will follow those words. Chinese leader Xi has met his Russian counterpart Putin around 40 times in total, most recently in September. He has spoken just a single time with Zelenskyy on the phone. That was in 2021, the year before the war. Xi has never met Zelenskyy in person.

In the short term, Ukraine has three concerns for China, former Foreign Minister Pavlo told DER SPIEGEL: That it not provide Russia with military support; that it not provide Russia with technology that can also be used militarily; and third, he said, it must be clear to Moscow "that the use of weapons of mass destruction is out of the question."

Klimkin argues that China's "peace plan" isn't even primarily about Ukraine or Russia. "China is using this moment more to present itself as a decisive player on the world stage and to fundamentally challenge the Western international order."

China's "Global Security Initiative"

Three days before the Ukraine paper, Beijing unveiled a much more detailed document laying out its "Global Security Initiative." The plan, announced by Xi almost a year ago, is a political continuation of the Silk Road Initiative, Beijing's nearly global economic and development program.

The text, heavily infused with party jargon, nonetheless provides fairly clear information about China's security policy plans. Similar to the Ukraine paper, it argues against "unilateralism, bloc confrontation and hegemonism" and advocates guaranteeing security not by means of military alliances but through individual agreements. At the same time, the text identifies where the focus of Chinese foreign policy will lie in the future: in the countries of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific island nations.

These are precisely the regions of the Global South where the U.S. and Europe have been trying to curry favor since the start of the Russian invasion. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's recent visit to Brazil demonstrated, this has only been partially successful. President Lula de Silva is reluctant to supply ammunition to Ukraine and has made reference to China's "peace plan." With 141 affirmative votes for the Ukraine resolution adopted on Thursday, the number of its supporters in the UN General Assembly remains very high. Russia gained only two, Mali and Nicaragua, in addition to its usual four allies (North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea).

Among the countries that abstained, and among those wary of going along with the sanctions imposed by the West, China has possible partners. Which isn't particularly surprising: Beijing has increased its diplomatic presence in almost all of these countries. For many of them, China is the largest trading partner – and many of them have also grown tired of an often arrogant West that fails to adhere to its own moral standards.

Beijing is even more adept at stirring up such sentiment at home. Political discourse in China had begun radicalizing even before the pandemic, but that process was accelerated by the country's post-2020 self-isolation. The perception of many Chinese is that the West, America especially, has become a caricature of itself: power-hungry, self-serving and focused exclusively on keeping China down. This radicalization can be observed not only in the state media and on the internet, but also in top diplomacy. China, the deputy foreign minister recently tweeted, "never engages in slaughter, predation or racial genocide of its ethnic minorities" like the U.S.

Though the conditions are quite a bit different, this shift in China is echoed by the debate in the U.S., where moderate voices have all but vanished. Each new event becomes a "China crisis," whether it's the intrusion of a Chinese spy balloon, the banning of the social network TikTok on government mobile phones or the debate about the origins of the coronavirus. Did the virus originate in a Chinese lab, as two American studies suggest? In any case, the chairman of a newly formed committee in the House of Representatives dedicated to countering China says that America is facing an "existential struggle." China has become an issue where politicians can score points domestically.

The Next Crises Are Looming

The "perception gap" has become so significant "that the two sides appear to genuinely no longer be able to understand each other," writes Zhao Tong, a Beijing native and Princeton University research on nuclear and disarmament issues. The direct lines of communication have also broken off. When officials at the Pentagon called Beijing after the balloon crisis, no one there picked up. A short time before, the U.S. secretary of state had cancelled his first visit to China.

A way out of the downward spiral in Sino-American relations, which has been accelerating since the start of the Ukraine war, seems increasingly difficult – especially since further conflicts are looming or already pre-programmed: This spring, Chinese leader Xi plans to travel to Moscow. That trip promises to ease the situation about as much as the planned trip to Taiwan by U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. China considers Taiwan to be part of its own territory. Beijing responded to a visit last summer by McCarthy's predecessor Nancy Pelosi with several days of military exercises.

The latest economic figures look like some strangely outdated legacy of a bygone era. Whereas the volume of trade between China and Russia rose by 30 percent last year to around $190 billion, that between China and the U.S. is more than three times greater – and more than ever before. And America's European allies conduct even more business with China - to the tune of more than $900 billion.

All of that will be at stake if the suspicions expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony two weeks ago are confirmed: that China is thinking about providing Russia with "lethal aid" – that is, supplying weapons, munitions or combat drones .

If that were to happen, Blinken said, it "could cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship" – and would likely result in an economic war that could dwarf anything that has preceded it. Mikko Huotari, head of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), has spoken of a "mega disaster," and a "meltdown" of the global economy if that were to happen.

It's a bitter irony, but also probably true: The Cold War, until now a horror vision for Sino-American relations, may end up being a comparatively harmless scenario.

Credits for image at top of page: [M] Lina Moreno / DER SPIEGEL; Photos (clockwise): Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images; Noel Celis / AFP; Annegret Hilse / REUTERS; Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL; Michael Kappeler / dpa; Ramil Sitdikov / Kremlin / Sputnik / AP

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