New cold wars emanating from Russia, China put Asia on edge

U.S. President Joe Biden, second from left, speaks with, left to right, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brussels on March 24.   © Reuters

TOKYO — Just a little over a month since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the world is facing two wars. One is Russia’s cruel aggression against its western neighbor; the other is the outbreak of a new cold war between Russia and the West.

The world is grappling with the most dangerous security crisis since the end of World War II. In Eastern Europe, where NATO is in a fraught confrontation with Russia, a shooting war could erupt at any time.

Tensions are also mounting in Asia. Ten Russian naval vessels passed through the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido on March 10 and 11. Moscow said on March 25 that it had begun military exercises involving more than 3,000 troops on a chain of islands, including those disputed with Japan.

Russia operates a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk, which Moscow views as key weapons for deterrence against the U.S. Russia could step up its military activities in the region to intimidate the U.S. forces and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fortify its position in the Sea of Okhotsk, according to a Japanese policymaker working on security issues.

This new cold war between Russia and the West goes beyond the military sphere. The U.S., Europe, Canada and a group of Asian countries — including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore — are creating a de facto economic blockade around Russia.Russian naval vessels sail off Japan in mid-March through the Tsugaru Strait.   © Japan Joint Staff Office

The conflict is likely to continue for years, even after a cease-fire is reached in Ukraine. The fact that the U.S., Europe and Japan have jointly imposed sanctions, against not just Russian companies but also President Vladimir Putin, has huge ramifications.

These actions are tantamount to warning Moscow that it has no chance of normalizing ties with leading Western democracies as long as Putin remains in power, according to Group of Seven diplomats.

Another major risk in this volatile mix is the increasingly toxic relationship between the U.S. and China, which seems to be developing into yet another cold war. Policymakers and security experts in the U.S., Europe and Asia are divided over whether the bitter rivalry between Washington and Beijing should be described in that way. Skeptics say the relationship between Washington and Beijing differs from that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in many respects.

There is some truth to this argument. Unlike the Soviet Union in its day, China is linked to the U.S. by an extensive web of economic ties. And Beijing is not seeking to spread communist ideology around the world as the Soviet Union did.

But there is no denying that Feb. 24 was a watershed in the confrontation between the two superpowers. It has become clear that the battle between China and the U.S. for global hegemony has profound implications for the international order.

Western powers see Putin as a destroyer of the postwar world order, and are hellbent on thwarting his aggression against Ukraine. They believe preventing a Russian victory is crucial to keep the world from reverting to the law of the jungle.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has precisely the opposite view: Xi believes in destroying the U.S.-led postwar world order to create a multipolar world. Under his plan, China should replace the U.S. as world leader by 2050.

Xi said during National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017 that Chinese citizens would live in a “moderately prosperous society,” while the nation itself moves toward a focal position in the world.

Since the beginning of the modern era, China has suffered long hardships, Xi said. But the time to stand up and simply aspire to wealthier lives is over, and the people have reached a point to leap toward greater power.Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at a BRICs summit in Brasilia in 2019: There is speculation Beijing may help Moscow in its war with Ukraine.   © Sputnik/Reuters

To achieve its goal, China needs Russia, which is its only major ally in its quest to weaken U.S. leadership and push the world toward a multipolar future. The last thing Beijing wants to see now is the collapse of Putin’s government.

Xi and the Chinese leadership have sided with Russia in the Ukraine conflict, refusing to call Moscow’s acts “aggression,” instead criticizing the West’s sanctions against Moscow. There are even signs that China is preparing to provide military assistance to Russia, according to U.S. intelligence. A U.S. foreign policy expert familiar with the intelligence said China may provide military supplies, if not lethal weapons, to Russia.

That means the conflict between the U.S. and China can no longer be characterized as competition for technological or maritime supremacy. It should instead be seen as a head-on crash between two completely different views of the world order.

If things turn out as Xi hopes, it will be the death knell for the U.S.-led international system that has maintained broad global stability during the postwar period. The new order could see Putin remain in power and paying a small price for his aggression, and the world trapped in an epidemic of violence and lawlessness.

There should be no doubt as to the need to prevent this from happening. Western powers, led by the G-7, need to tighten economic vice around Russia, while also putting pressure on China to stop shielding it. There are at least two plausible ways to do this.A destroyed military vehicle is seen in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 29. (Screen grab from video obtained by Reuters)

First, Western democracies should monitor closely China’s actions for any move to support Russia that undermines the effectiveness of the global sanctions against it and publish those findings swiftly. Secondly, they should also consider punishing China for any such support.

It will be difficult to persuade the Xi government to reverse its position on the war in Ukraine, but it may be possible to entice Beijing to adjust its policy.

The political climate in China is likely to heat up in the run-up to the Communist Party congress this autumn: It is possible that some party members may start complaining about Xi’s backing of Putin’s aggression. There are already signs that criticism of Xi is emerging within the party.

In mid-March, a Chinese academic affiliated with the government caused a stir by proposing that the government distance itself from Russia. Former Premier Zhu Rongji has questioned the wisdom of allowing Xi to serve an unprecedented third consecutive term, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, there is probably no way to prevent the U.S.-China rivalry from escalating into a new type of cold war, regardless of what happens with respect to Beijing’s cooperation with Moscow.

In this new cold war with China, the West faces a much tougher opponent than the Soviet Union because many Asian nations have closer economic ties with China than with the U.S.

Leading Western powers, including Japan, need to start mapping out effective strategies to respond to these two cold wars.

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