Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came just days before the 50th anniversary of US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the start of a historic détente between the two Cold War powers. The irony was not lost on analysts, who questioned whether the world might be heading into a new Cold War era. Are we living through a hinge-point in history? Could the war in Ukraine bring about an historic shift in the global balance of power?

Taking a self-reflexive view, I find it easy to believe that we may indeed be living through a hinge-point. I say this as someone born in Britain in the early 1990s, around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It was the end of the Cold War, the start of a period of relative global economic stability and geopolitical calm.

I remember seeing war on the TV during my early childhood, mostly from the former Yugoslavia. But conflict was something that always felt far away. That changed somewhat in 2001, with the September 11 attacks and the subsequent wars in the Middle East led by the US, UK and their allies.

In 2008, the Global Financial Crisis did not trigger war but showed the fragility of a system seen as integral to world peace. This setback for US-led economic hegemony neatly coincided with the Olympics in Beijing, an event that signalled China’s emergence as a major power.

And so, as I grew older, the global order clearly seemed to be changing. Fundamentally, though, it was still the globalised, US-led world I’d always known. As a young adult, I made trips to far-flung places like Russia, China, even North Korea. I ultimately decided to focus on China and moved there to study and work.

This was helped by a broader atmosphere of constructive bilateral engagement which existed then, even between liberal and illiberal countries. By 2015, the British and Chinese governments had become so cosy as to declare a “Golden Era” of relations.

It was a time of unprecedented global connectivity. People, money, and goods flowed around the world with extreme ease and speed. Scores of countries, China included, started granting multi-year visas and even visa-free travel to many foreign nationals.

Looking back, the early 2010s now seems to have been a peak for globalised, peaceful relations among the world’s major powers. But it started to fade in 2016 as the globalist vision came crashing down, first with Brexit, then with Donald Trump’s election on an “America First” mandate. Since 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic has dramatically continued to disrupt global connectivity.

The war in Ukraine is a new and very consequential step in this trajectory towards a less globalised, less peaceful world. In saying this, I do not wish to detract from the immediate humanitarian and political crisis that is unfolding in Europe. I also do not claim to fully understand the long-term importance of current events as they unfold.

But I do sense that the historical significance of the Russo-Ukrainian War is likely to be enormous. An extraordinary raft of sanctions has isolated one of Europe’s largest economies, forcing other countries to question their exposure to US dollar hegemony.

Politically, the West’s isolation of a P5 power is also unchartered territory and has pushed Russia deeper into China’s orbit. The reaction from many is that this is leading to a bifurcation, with revived Western solidarity and sense of common purpose on the one hand, versus the deepening of anti-Western narratives on the other hand.

In this conception, the liberal and illiberal worlds are becoming increasingly polarised, with democracies pitted against autocracies. Some suggest that this war may be the start of a new Cold War between a US-led western bloc and a Chinese-Russian eastern bloc. While I understand this perspective, my own sense is that it crudely oversimplifies and perhaps misstates the many nuances of the current geopolitical landscape.

What we are witnessing is not as simple as Cold War-style separation into blocs that will neatly align along both geographical and ideological fault lines. And it is also not accurately understood as a rising Asia versus a declining West, even though this narrative has been widely projected in recent years.

Instead of bifurcation, what may in fact be emerging is a fragmentation along political and doctrinal lines, rather than geographical or continental lines. But while Russia and China still share some common goals and principles, they lack the former common identity of communism.

Western countries are relatively more aligned in a common ideology, just as they were in the Cold War, and they have certainly united in opposition to Russian belligerence in Ukraine. Yet there exist huge differences in the strategic goals and positions of countries in the West, from say the US and the UK to the EU 26, as well as Japan and other ‘Western’ nations located in Asia Pacific.

This fragmented picture is further complicated by other regions of the world, especially in the Global South. As during the Cold War, most countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America are not aligned with either an Eastern or Western bloc, but have intricate and complex ties both to Western countries and to China and Russia.

The idea of Cold War bifurcation also brushes over how much the global balance of power has changed since the latter half of the 20th century. Today’s Russian Federation may be the successor state to the Soviet Union, but it has lost the ideological and economic influence that made the USSR so threatening to the West.

At the same time, China has advanced its economic and geopolitical influence to a position that rivals and could ultimately exceed that of the US. There is also some debate over whether Moscow or Beijing is the senior partner in their “no limits” partnership, a question that I will not seek to address here.

But one possible outcome of Russia’s continued economic isolation is that it ultimately becomes a client state of China, a la North Korea or Myanmar, effectively reversing the original order of the Communist world hierarchy. At the same time, it is likely that China continues to maintain economic relations with countries across the West and the Global South.

The result, I subject, is a return to the triangular nature of geopolitics that defined the Cold War era. Only this time, it is not the US that holds a “Russia card” or “China card”, but China which holds the cards. In other words, Beijing’s continued engagement with both Moscow and Western capitals gives it unique leverage over both sides, in a way that is off limits to Russia and the West because of their effective disengagement.

The next question is whether China would ever play its “US card” or “Russia card” and what exactly that would look like in practice. But the likelihood that we will soon find out appears slim.

While Beijing has many reasons to be displeased at the war, it also wants to avoid seeing Russia toppled, since that would embolden the West. This means that China will likely pursue the status quo, even at the cost of continued conflict and instability.

If we are to see China seek to play its hand at some point, history dictates that it will likely coincide with changes in elite leadership, just as Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 occurred in the context of Khruschev’s recent death and Mao’s imminent demise. But with Xi Jinping expected to remain in power for years to come, any strategic adjustment by Beijing could yet be a long way off.

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