A New Cold War? Biden, Russia, and China’s Geopolitical Alignment
“Does our competition and confrontation — in terms of ideological opposition as well as limited economic and diplomatic intercourse — amount to a New Cold War?”
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Earlier this summer, Orange Wang of The South China Morning Post flagged some perhaps unorthodox remarks made by Liu Weidong 刘卫东, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
Speaking at an online webinar hosted by Renmin University’s National Academy of Development and Strategy, Liu argued that Russia was leveraging the Ukraine war to “take advantage” of China. Liu further suggested that closer China-Russia ties are precisely what the Biden administration is seeking: if an alliance were to be established, the logic goes, “the final outcome won’t mutual cooperation, but mutual exhaustion.”
Political unorthodoxy particularly on highly sensitive topics like foreign policy is rare in China, particularly among high-profile academics, and deserves the benefit of full context. In his twenty-minute speech, he addresses:
The nature of the US alliance system from the end of World War II to the present, and how its structure today bears the marks of the Cold War’s legacy;
Whether the United States and China are engaged in a “New Cold War,” and why he thinks the Biden administration is framing US-China differences not only politically but also racially;
What China should make of the Biden administration’s constant pleas for “guardrails”;
And ultimately, whether following Xi’s foreign-policy directives to “expand our circle of friends” and “make friends with more countries” necessitates abandoning China’s non-alignment policy.
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The US Alliance System
I think there are many issues that the previous speaker covered in depth — I’ll rehash them from two angles:
The first is regarding the alliance system established by the United States to handle China. Some of their thinking must be that their own strength is insufficient — the United States needs to utilize the strength of others as well. At the same time, I think the United States also considers China to be a threat to the entire Western world, so US allies must actually contribute as well. Against the “America First” backdrop which still persists, the United States hopes to reduce the “free-riding” behavior [搭便车] of its allies in dealing with China.
The second is about the classification of alliances — I think they can be divided into three types:
The first type is tangible, fixed alliances: NATO, the Quad, AUKUS, US bilateral alliances — all of which have fixed cooperation mechanisms. This is the traditional type of alliance the United States wants to maintain.
The second type is the Summit for Democracy that Biden wants to host: the participating countries are Biden’s new targets, which he hopes to gather together under the banner of freedom and democracy to support his cause — namely, competing with China.
The third type is establishing “partnerships” [伙伴] — not alliances [联盟] — for the purpose of intentionally provoking China, such that when China responds, it may trigger reactions from other countries which weren’t even involved in that incident. For example, in the past it was mainly the United States and Europe that were concerned with the Taiwan issue; other countries were seldom concerned. But now we can see that many countries which previously were never involved with Taiwan have begun to turn their attention toward the region.
In short, the Biden administration is learning from our traditional approach: making more friends and fewer enemies. The United States is actually repeating its old tricks [故伎重演], same as during the Cold War.
Historically, the United States hasn’t been afraid of competition. On the contrary, the United States is afraid that others won’t compete with it. But this competition is conditional: you cannot fight wars, especially against big countries. If you start a war, the benefits of competition are no longer guaranteed.
Thus the US government is doing everything it can to create an environment under which the United States and China can maintain a peaceful form of competition. Hence the constant proposals to establish guardrails. This all actually has a certain degree of familiarity with the Cold War. We can see, from the perspective of comparative research, that the United States has pursued this approach to alliances ever since it stepped onto the international stage.
As for China: historically, at the PRC’s founding we joined the so-called “loose alliance system” [Ed.: 松散联盟体系; Jin Canrong 金灿荣 has referred to the US’s “hub and spokes” architecture as a “loose alliance system” as well]. But after Reform and Opening-up, we have firmly adhered to the policy of non-alignment.
Are We Engaged in a New Cold War?
Many previous speakers today have spoken about the Cold War versus the New Cold War. Precisely what are the differences between them — and just how new is the New Cold War? I have a few thoughts of my own:
First, the New Cold War is not a “cold war” — that’s for sure. Even so, our definition of a New Cold War shouldn’t be constrained by the old Cold War.
Second, the fact that the United States is moving in the direction of a cold war does not imply that the United States and China will inevitably enter a cold war in the traditional sense. You can see that the Biden administration is constantly declaring, “We will not fight a New Cold War” [Ed.: For instance, Biden said as much after meeting Xi in Bali in November 2022] — but he is saying one thing and means another [他一直口是心非]. What he says and what he does are not the same.
Third, we reject “cold war” in a subjective sense, but that does not mean that a New Cold War won’t come. In fact, we Chinese have always rejected the term “New Cold War”; we firmly reject the United States fighting a cold war. But our rejection of a cold war and whether we will be dragged into one are two different things.
I think, looking at current US-China interactions, there are very obvious signs that the United States is increasingly beginning to look at China from the angle of national identity politics; and it’s therefore natural that it believes the United States and China are two completely different countries — not only in terms of political systems but, in fact, increasingly in terms of racial essentialism. It is because of the inherent differences between the two countries that the United States believes hostility is inevitable.
In fact, the United States had the same understanding during the Cold War — and now the Biden administration is painstakingly emphasizing the political differences between the United States and China.
In the final analysis, the issue of whether it’s a cold war or not, I think, boils down to one question: does our competition and confrontation — in terms of ideological opposition as well as limited economic and diplomatic intercourse — amount to a New Cold War? I think this question has a lot of room worth exploring.
Of course there is no consensus in academic circles on a clear-cut definition of “New Cold War.” Personally, I think the core essence of the New Cold War is peaceful competition. If defined in that way, it’s likely that China and the United States could enter such a mode in the future — that is, a mode under which the United States is the leader.
How Far Can Biden Go?
Now, we come to the Biden administration’s plans. How far is it willing to go?
For example, it can be seen from our official media that it is impossible for the Biden administration to unite or rally his allies against China — other countries are unwilling to choose sides.
But whether this is really the case, or whether it will always be the case — I think a lot of things needed to be considered:
At least for now, I think the Biden administration has made some progress in promoting peaceful competition, which should give him some confidence. For example, under the leadership of the United States, pressure from Western countries on China is gradually taking shape. We can see that, in the near future, the US government is rolling the Quad forward; and although that has not met expectations, the Quad is still being utilized — its efforts on the Taiwan issue exemplify those efforts.
In key industries and technological fields, the United States believes a gap between it and China still exists, and it wants to guarantee its dominant position via decoupling. At the same time, the United States is actively — even forcefully — putting pressure on its allies to force them to keep up with it. And from the perspective of the United States, this kind of approach has been relatively successful. For example, from the US perspective, we can see that many Western countries are keeping up with the United States in jointly putting pressure on Huawei.
One difference between the Biden and Trump administrations: Biden has always been very confident, whereas Trump always believed the United States was inferior to China — which set the stage for Trump saying, “We’re not blaming China at all; we’re blaming previous US administrations. But China really is doing better than the United States.” [Ed.: Although Trump praised Xi on many occasions, I wasn’t able to find reports of Trump saying the US was inferior to China. The closest analog I could find was a quote from 2018 that Xi had done more for the United States than any previous PRC leader.]
Biden, on the other hand, thinks the United States has its own strengths in many fields — he’s more confident. Moreover, Biden believes that the United States has a surplus of tools at its disposal to pressure China, including tools which have unilateral advantages; China, he thinks, does not have that kind of reciprocal ability to retaliate, so the United States need not be passive.
In general, since the Biden administration came to power, it cannot be said that he has achieved its intended goals in terms of advancing its various agendas with China; he is definitely unsatisfied in some respects. Even so, he is also making progress, surely and steadily [稳扎稳打].
So How Should China Respond to This All?
How China should view Russia’s intentions toward us is an important — and sensitive — issue.
We can see where Biden and Trump differ. Trump ranked China as posing a threat on par with Russia. Biden, however, ranked China ahead of Russia — but Biden has made repeated attempts to bind China and Russia together [绑定在一起], such as saying that everything Russia does has something to do with China, and that China is quietly supporting Russia behind the scenes [Ed.: Read ChinaTalk’s coverage of that development in February 2023].
I’ll speculate as to why Biden would do this: I think his goal is to deliberately push China and Russia together, thereby forcing or luring them into establishing a certain kind of alliance — and that once such an alliance is formed, the final outcome won’t mutual cooperation, but mutual exhaustion [最終的結果不是相互配合，而是相互消耗]. Biden has already realized this. He knows that if an alliance of a certain degree is really established, it will actually bring more problems, rather than cooperation.
So let’s look at it from Russia’s point of view. After the Russia-Ukraine conflict — and even before it — Russia has been trying to use China [试图利用中国], and this exploitation was pursued unilaterally. Russia does not want China to also take advantage of it, nor does it really want to form an alliance with China.
What we seek is win-win cooperation under the premise of non-alignment [我们追求的是不结盟前提下的合作共赢]. I’m wondering, though: is it possible to conditionally achieve this kind of win-win cooperation? What does Russia actually think of China? What does it hope to gain from its cooperation with China? I think these are all very worthy of deep thought.
And related to the previous question: under present-day realities, is it still necessary for China to maintain its non-alignment policy [不结盟政策]? How can we resolve the dilemma of the alliance issue?
We all know that alliances have their difficulties: after forming an alliance, we need to consider the obligation to support our allies, as well as the consideration of being abandoned or being drawn into contradictory situations [被引入矛盾的处境].
On this issue, China is still adhering to a non-alignment policy — but in practice some of our actions have already developed in this direction. For example, on the issue of Xinjiang, the United States and the West have rallied a group of countries to accuse China of human rights issues in Xinjiang — but on our side, dozens of countries stood with us to counter the West. This has essentially formed two camps [两个阵营], regardless of whether they were formed passively or actively. Moreover, on some other issues — such as Iran and other matters — the confrontation between countries is becoming a manifestation of an inescapable reality, independent of human will.
In this context, we can see that the United States is making many friends. We should also see, however, that some countries reluctant to take sides are beginning to choose sides quietly; they have already made choices between China and the United States. For instance, European countries are getting closer to the United States, and Japan and South Korea — which were once sitting on the fence — are now following the United States more firmly. That’s the reality.
So, what should we do?
He continues with his vision of the correct Chinese geopolitical posture for the twenty-first century and how to compete along those lines: