From the beginning of the war in Ukraine, it was clear that China would not condemn Russia’s invasion. On February 25, Beijing abstained from a vote on a UN Security Council draft resolution condemning the attack. China also abstained from a condemnation of the war by 141 countries in the UN General Assembly.
And Beijing’s implicit support of Russia continues despite Moscow’s continued escalation of the war.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China’s friendship with Russia was “solid as a rock,” and constituted the “most important bilateral relationship” in the world contributing to “peace, stability and development.”
Wang blamed a “Cold War mentality” as the real reason for the war in Ukraine. This catchphrase has been increasingly used by China in recent years, especially in its criticism of the United States.
“We must overcome the Cold War mentality and instead focus on peaceful coexistence and win-win strategies,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Geneva in January.
“The only thing more dangerous is the pursuit of hegemony and the oppression of others who resist the course of history,” Xi said. Although he did not name the United States, it was clear that this message was directed at Washington.
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East vs. West
As is already well known, the Cold War roughly lasted from 1947 to 1989 and included two camps: the so-called Western powers, led by the US, and the Eastern bloc, led by the USSR, nominally on the sides of capitalism and communism, respectively. The Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union.
China, which stood by the side of its Soviet brother state after World War II, had a falling out with Moscow in 1960. China’s leader, Mao Zedong, and USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev had different interpretations of relations with the West. The USSR under Khrushchev wanted to pursue a policy of “peaceful coexistence,” while Mao wanted to take a more aggressive course toward a Communist-led global revolution.
Today, when China speaks of a “Cold War mentality,” there can no longer be any talk of two polarized camps.
In the view of the Chinese leadership, the United States and NATO have not overcome a Cold War mindset. In this context, Russia is permanently threatened by NATO.
Similarly, China says it is threatened by the Indo-Pacific strategies of the US and the EU, like for instance the trilateral security pact involving the US, the UK and Australia (AUKUS) under which the US and the UK will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, or even by loose security dialogues such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), in which the US, Japan, India and Australia participate.
At the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi met and reaffirmed the friendship between Russia and China.
In a joint statement, the leaders said they opposed the “further expansion of NATO,” while calling on the alliance to “abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches, respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries and the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and adopt a fair and objective attitude toward the peaceful development of other countries.”
Cold War 2.0
It is true that more and more politicians and analysts in the West are talking about a new Cold War. The expression “Cold War 2.0” is used to refer to the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, but also between the European Union and China. In March 2019, the EU Commission officially declared China a “systemic rival.”
Putin and Xi against the West
From China’s perspective, this terminology transfers outdated thinking from the 20th century into the 21st. Beijing tends to see the US, its international partners, and NATO as unilaterally seeking confrontation with China, and also with Russia.
For example, Beijing says that its multibillion-dollar Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) project is only aimed at peaceful coexistence and cooperation with partner countries. Conversely, China says the Indo-Pacific strategiesof the West are primarily aimed at countering Chinese interests, rather than providing a platform for development.
Political scientist Michal Lubina of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, who has been researching Russian-Chinese relations for many years, told DW that the world is moving toward a new Cold War, with China as the main adversary of the West.
“Of course, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a kind of new containment of China,” he said, adding that Beijing is not entirely wrong in thinking that the West is organizing strategies to counter Chinese power.
China and Russia’s ‘Cold War mentality’
It takes two to tango in a Cold War. Lubina emphasizes that neither China nor Russia is a selfless benefactor who is being prevented from “contributing to world peace, stability and development,” as Wang Yi put it.
And no matter what Beijing says, it was not a Cold War mentality or an outdated 20th century thought pattern that triggered the war of aggression in Ukraine, rather a decision by the Russian government. “There was no threat whatsoever from Ukraine,” Lubina said.
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The analyst said China’s talk of a Cold War mentality and Russia’s justifications that its actions are intended to defend itself from NATO are hypocritical. Russia and China both think and act in Cold War categories.
“They believe that smaller and medium-sized countries have no agenda,” Lubina said. “I would even go so far as to say that, if Russia had taken Ukraine seriously, there would be no war. Because then they would have taken the Ukrainian army seriously, as well,” he added.
In Russia’s worldview, it is impossible to conceive that sovereign states such as Ukraine would make use of their sovereignty and decide of their own free will in favor of democracy and closer ties with the European Union.
The fact that Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has its own ideas about its future is also unacceptable to Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a Chinese province.
And China’s behavior has made clear that the leadership in Beijing sees the world in spheres of influence in which a few large nations alone decide how the world is ordered.
As early as 2010, the then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the countries of Southeast Asia: “China is a big country. Other countries are small. This is simply a fact.” Yang was implying that the countries of Southeast Asia should bow to China’s claim to leadership, entirely in the tradition of the Cold War.
This article was originally written in German.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru