US President Joe Biden recently brought the leaders of allies Japan and South Korea to Camp David to discuss how to contain China and counter Russia’s influence. Meanwhile, leaders from the Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – gathered in Johannesburg to criticise the West’s dominance over the international institutions established after World War II. It was enough to give Cold War historians déjà vu.
The West’s main adversary today is China, not the Soviet Union, and the Brics is no Warsaw Pact. But with the world entering a period of uncertainty following the demise of the post-Cold War order, the parallels are sufficient to convince many to turn to pre-1989 conceptual models to gain insight into what might come next. This includes the US and China, though each is betting on a different model.
Between the end of WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two main forces defining the international order were ideological conflict, which split the world into two camps, and the quest for independence, which led to the proliferation of states, from 50 in 1945 to over 150 in 1989-1991. While the two forces interacted, ideological conflict was dominant: struggles for independence often morphed into proxy wars, and countries were forced either to join a bloc or define themselves by their “non-alignment.”
The US seems to think a similar dynamic will dominate this time around. Faced with its first peer competitor since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has sought to rally its allies behind a strategy of “decoupling” and “de-risking” – essentially an economic version of the Cold War policy of containment.
Whereas the US may be expecting Cold War II, shaped primarily by ideological polarisation, China seems to be betting on global fragmentation. Yes, it has tried to offer non-Western countries an alternative to Western-dominated institutions such as the G7 or the International Monetary Fund. But, in China’s view, the quest for sovereignty and independence is fundamentally incompatible with the formation of Cold War-style blocs.
Instead, China expects a multipolar world. While China cannot win a battle against a US-led bloc, President Xi Jinping seems convinced that it can take its place as a great power in a fragmented global order.
Even America’s closest allies are not immune from the trend toward fragmentation, despite US leaders’ best efforts. Consider the recent Camp David summit. Though some media were quick to herald a “new cold war,” the participants’ interests diverged in several ways.
South Korea’s main focus remains North Korea, and the intelligence-sharing agreements and nuclear consultations announced after the summit were as much about signalling their resolve to push back against North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s regime as they were about countering China. Japan, for its part, is eager to avoid strategic escalation over Taiwan – a development that would threaten its economic model, which depends significantly on trade with China. And both South Korea and Japan are unhappy with the zeal with which America is pursuing its de-risking strategy.
The picture that emerges is of a world in which the superpowers lack sufficient economic, military, or ideological clout to force the rest of the world – in particular, the increasingly confident “middle powers” – to pick a side.
Contrary to how it may appear to many, not least in the US, the new cold war seems to be based not on the old logic of polarisation, but on a new logic of fragmentation. Judging by the growth of the Brics, there is no shortage of countries that find that new logic enticing.