The New Cold War


“The context, cause and course of events on US House Speaker Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taiwan are crystal clear. It is the US that has breached its one-China commitment and undermined China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, not the other way round. It is the US leader who travelled to China’s Taiwan region to support the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities. No one from China has gone to Alaska or elsewhere in the US to support separatist movement there.”

Wang Wenbin, 19 August 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, continue to define geopolitics today. While most countries have taken sides, others are at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next. Intermediate powers, like India, have refused to take part in the great power game being played out in Asia and West Asia, except where it concerns its interests. Smaller players, including countries like not just Sri Lanka, but also Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, have taken a similarly ambivalent stance, calling for a de-escalation of hostilities on all sides while refraining from blaming one specific side.

There is nothing particularly unprecedented about these developments. They differ very little from the stands that these countries, and regions, took during the Cold War. But the new Cold War is different. It is not defined by one major geopolitical split. Instead, we have different countries pitted against each other over some interests and allied with each other over others. Geopolitics today is far more complex than it has ever been.

Of course, this is another way of saying that we are seeing through an unprecedented period in history. We have lived through at least two such periods before: the Cold War, when the US was pitted against a common enemy in the Soviet Union; and the ‘unipolar moment’, when the US stood as the sole superpower. Each era was defined by a contest between power and ideals: naked national interest versus universal abstractions like human rights, democracy, accountability, and good governance. The dynamics today are, of course, no different. But the logic underlying them is, and markedly so.

The issue is no longer about the age-old conflict between national interests and universal ideals. It is about perspective and perception. The US-led New Cold War front sees China’s claims over Taiwan as an infringement of territorial integrity and sovereignty, while China sees Western meddling in the Taiwan issue along the same lines. For Beijing, the One-China policy is paramount: enshrined by a UN Resolution, the notion has been fully accepted and endorsed by international law. Similarly, Russia sees NATO’s ambitions in Eastern Europe, in particular its former satellite States, as a violation of its security.

Simply put, each side mobilises the same rhetoric against the other. The US sees China as undermining a rules-based order, while Chinese officials warn that the US, in escalating support for Taiwan, is pushing the world back to ‘jungle rules’ and ‘barbarian times.’  The US has been using these terms to demonise its enemies, even before the Cold War. That China is using them today is indicative of two things: that it is embracing the rhetoric of a rules-based order, and that it is deploying such rhetoric in defence of its perceptions of that order, which clearly are not the same as the US’s or Western Europe’s.

Now it’s easy to compare this with the Cold War. But the situation then was different. Even though the US and the Soviet Union did confront each other over the same ideals, often at the same forums and institutions – the UN being the preferred platform – each side pursued a very different economic and political paradigm.

The US was committed to its vision of a free world, buttressed by a capitalist free market system, while the Soviet Union was committed to socialist transformation and reconstruction. Today, by contrast, the contestation is not between those paradigms, but between an array of interests and priorities, which both sides advocate as the basis (the ‘grundnorm’) of international order.

The Cold War made it possible for both sides of the divide to conceal these interests. Under various ideological covers, the United States, and the Soviet Union, masked its intentions. Thus, if the US deployed the rhetoric of human rights against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union could use the gospel of socialist reconstruction against the US axis.

Today, by contrast, the issue is not about what gospel you prefer, but rather what version of the gospel. China uses human rights to criticise Western intervention in the same way the United States uses it to criticise China’s treatment of its minorities. Russia does the same vis-à-vis NATO. This has made it easier for us to see through ideological obfuscations, while making it difficult for the opposing factions to reach a compromise.

Not surprisingly, the Left has split as well. To be sure, they were divided during the Cold War, arguably more so than now. Yet back then, it didn’t matter if you were a Stalinist, a Trotskyite, a Maoist, or a Castroist: the disagreements that prevailed between them paled away in favour of the bigger rift between Washington and Moscow.

In comparison, present-day Marxists are split over one issue: is the Western axis the only imperialist bloc, or do China and Russia belong in the same league? If so, should the Left pick sides, or should it criticise both? Should it ally with a specific bloc, or should it disengage from all blocs? That China, Russia, and the US resort to the same rhetoric, over issues like human rights, sovereignty, and democracy, has only complicated this debate.

The bottom line is that these sides are playing against one another using the language of the same morals, ethics, and values. The West condemns China’s intentions in Taiwan, while China condemns US interventions in South America. The US defends those interventions on the basis that it is concerned with the preservation of certain ideals, while China replies that it is moved by the same motives in Taiwan and the South China Sea.

It was easy to resolve and put an end to Cold War hostilities because the contending camps differed over certain ideals. To be sure, China and the US are still not on the same page when it comes to those ideals. Yet, they are using the same rhetoric relating to them. This has complicated geopolitics considerably and has made the idea of reconciliation between the contending camps untenable. The Cold War saw its share of negotiators like Kissinger and Gorbachev. The current status quo has made such individuals, heroes of the old order, passe in the new. We hence need a new logic and a new politics to make sense of the new order. Until then, the world will remain in a stalemate.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya