China and Russia’s Return to Cold War Tactics

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 27 2013 11:30 AM

The Return of History

We are not locked in a new Cold War, but China and Russia are bringing back Cold War tactics.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes China's President Xi Jinping at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes China's President Xi Jinping at the start of the G20 summit on Sept. 5 in Saint Petersburg.

Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

“Is this a new Cold War?”

Every time I say anything to anyone anywhere about Russia nowadays, that’s what I’m asked. And there is a clear answer: No. This is not a new Cold War. Neither the United States nor Europe is locked in a deadly, apocalyptic competition with Russia, China, or anyone else. We are not fighting proxy wars. The world has not been divided into two Orwellian halves, democrats vs. communists.

But although we are not fighting a new Cold War, the tactics of the old Cold War are now, at the dawn of 2014, suddenly being deployed in a manner not seen since the early 1980s. We in the United States may not believe that we are engaged in an ideological struggle with anybody, but other people are engaged in an ideological struggle with us. We in the United States may not believe that there is any real threat to our longtime alliance structures in Europe and Asia, but other people think those alliances are vulnerable and have set out to undermine them.

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Sometimes these gestures are quite open. China’s recent, unilateral declaration of a new air defense zone in the East China Sea was a clear attempt to warn its neighbors that its navy is preparing to compete with the U.S. fleet. The Chinese naval ship that recently cut in front of a U.S. destroyer, forcing it to change course, sent a similar message. Neither of these incidents signals the start of a cold, hot, or any other kind of war. But they do mean that China intends to chip away at the status quo, to undermine the faith of U.S. allies—Japan, South Korea, the Philippines—in American power and force them to think twice, at the very least, about their old economic, military, and trade agreements.

Over the past year, Russia has been playing the same kind of games with NATO: no open threats, just hints. Last spring, the Russian air force staged a mock attack on Sweden, came perilously close to Swedish air space and buzzed Gotland Island. The Swedish air force failed to react—it was after midnight on Good Friday—though eventually two Danish planes scrambled to follow the Russian planes back across the Baltic. Russian officials have also made veiled (and not so veiled) threats to Finland, selectively boycotted industries in the Baltic states, and dropped hints that Russia intends to put, or might already have put, longer-range missiles on its Western border—missiles designed to hit Germany.

I repeat: Russia does not intend to start a war. Russia, rather, intends in the short term to undermine regional confidence in NATO, in U.S. military guarantees, in West European solidarity. In the longer term, Russia wants Scandinavia, the Baltic states, and eventually all of Europe to accept Russian policies in other spheres.

Russia and China do not coordinate these actions, and there isn’t much love lost between them, either. But the elites of both of these countries do have one thing in common: They dislike the institutions of liberal democracy as practiced in Europe, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere, and they are determined to prevent them from spreading to Moscow or Beijing. These same elites believe that Western media, Western ideas, and especially Western capitalism—as opposed to state capitalism—pose a threat to their personal domination of their economies. They want the world to remain safe for their particular form of authoritarian oligarchy, and they are increasingly prepared to pay a high price for it.

Last week, the Russian president effectively bought the goodwill of the Ukrainian president, offering him some $15 billion to prop up his budget in exchange for not signing a free-trade agreement with the European Union. That agreement would eventually have made Ukraine better governed, more prosperous—and less accessible to corrupt Russian businesses. China has also made clear that Western journalists who write about Chinese corruption are no longer welcome in the country. Good Sino-American relations are important to Beijing, but not as important as blocking Western investigative reporters who might pose a threat to China’s ruling families.

It would be silly to take any one of these incidents too seriously. But it would be equally silly to ignore them. We spent the 1990s enjoying the fruits of post-Cold War prosperity, the early 2000s fighting the war on terrorism. We are intellectually, economically, and militarily unprepared to contemplate Great Power conflict, let alone engage in the hard work of renewing alliances and sharpening strategy. But History is back, whether we want it to be or not. Happy New Year.

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