I’m seeing a lot of grand predictions about a new Cold War between the US and China. There is definitely one coming eventually. But now? Maybe China is that dumb. But probably not. If they aren’t dumb, the want the Ukraine war over quickly with no more damage done to the world order. Although it has already done a lot to damage Chinese interests.
Everyone will agree that China wants to “win” the coming Cold War with the USA.
- A win = effectively replacing the USA at the center of the world’s power nexus.
- A draw = an (uneasy) equal status bipolar world.
- A loss = the dustbin of history. Where the Soviet Union ended up.
Most would also agree that wealth ultimately “won” Cold War 1.0. The US got richer faster than the Soviet Union. The US also attracted richer, more successful allies than the Soviets. Note that, in 1960, this was not yet obvious. Russia had just gone through a truly amazing 40 year transformation from backward agricultural peasant economy to an industrial powerhouse (does that narrative sound familiar vis China today?). By 1980, it was obvious the USSR and its moribund client states had fallen hopelessly behind. All Gorbachev did was acknowledge that reality.
China knows that history. China does not want to lose Cold War 2.0. Meaning China does not want to repeat Russia’s mistakes.
Right here, right now, China does not want to escalate to Cold War 2.0. They know they would lose. To have a chance of winning, China needs to develop its economy further. It needs the West’s technology to do that. The most obvious example is semiconductor manufacturing, where China is totally dependent on Western equipment. You really cant win a Cold War (much less a hot one) without semiconductors. To have any chance of winning eventually, China can’t any Cold War 2.0 battle lines harden right now. They need to keep the global situation fluid and friendly.
When China does escalate (eventually), they will want successful (rich) allies. In a lot of stuff I read, China is lined up with Russia, Iran, Myanmar, and other dubious allies. With friends like that, China has zero chance of winning Cold War 2.0. The Soviets ended up leading the League of Losers, Parade of Pariahs, Army of Also-Rans. China knows the leader of the League Of Losers ends up losing. China’s best hope would be to peel Europe away from the US. Not necessarily into the Chinese sphere of influence, but into a more neutral “mercantile” stance. Germany, especially, was already heading in that direction. Until Ukraine happened.
Seen in this light, the Russia/Ukraine war is already a massive setback for China’s long-term ambitions. It has…
- …pushed Europe back into the US embrace (and vice versa).
- …pushed odious Russia (and its war crimes) a little too obviously into China’s too-obvious embrace.
- …set back China’s own developmental ambitions. It is going to be that much harder to convince “the West” to keep handing over critical technologies (like semiconductor manufacturing know-how). Putin destroyed at least a decade worth of complacency on that front.
- …reminded “everyone” of the dangers of authoritarian states with long-term designs on strategically important place like Ukraine or Taiwan.
- … cranked up defense spending in Europe and innovations in sanction regimes.
- …demonstrated that Taiwan might be a harder nut to crack than China first assumed. Military advantage hasn’t shifted to favor the defender this drastically since maybe WW1.
The longer the war goes on, the worse it gets for China. Especially if the rest of the world decides to perceive China as the new Pasha of the Pariah States. China doesn’t want to choose teams for a new Cold War right now. It especially doesn’t want to end up leading a “team” of lagging pariah states. Russia led a team of lagging pariahs in the first Cold War. Russia lost. China understands that.
So it is in China’s best interests to get this war past us sooner vs later. Without further damaging Russia (now a vassal state) or damaging the “open market” world order on which China’s development depends. If it retreats behind a Bamboo Curtain today, it will retrace the Soviet’s steps. Actually I suspect they will retrace them regardless (another blog post for later), but the Chinese are probably smart enough to try and avoid that.
China wants to replace the US as global hegemon. Their long term goal is not to replace the Soviet Union on the shabby, lagging side of a new Iron/Bamboo Curtain. Right here and right now, they don’t want Putin to break things any more catastrophically than he already has. Or at least that is where China’s best interests lie.
Again, read this for a Chinese articulation of China’s own interests. Cold War later, not Cold War now. https://uscnpm.org/2022/03/12/hu-wei-russia-ukraine-war-china-choice/