With a new Cold War on the horizon between China and the United States, Russia will step in as the major beneficial actor, after the two superpowers are mutually exhausted. Both Washington and Beijing have been courting Moscow, each from its own perspective, to tilt the balance in the ongoing confrontation with the other. Putin will watch happily attempting to exploit his country’s leverage to manipulate developments to his advantage.
In the past century, the traditional Cold War between Washington and Moscow meant deep polarization across the globe. Countries were to choose on which side they stood. Bi-polar tension dominated international relations for decades.
This new Cold War is different: its objectives, tools and players are not the same anymore. Trade and the economy rather than nuclear weapons are the determinant factors of power in this era.
China and Russia are still ideologically similar, both standing against the West, but not as Communist comrades. Communism has been left behind as the embrace of market economics is firm.
Their relations are very much affected by each country’s relations with Washington. For example, when the US paved the way for China to join the WTO back in 2001, and Obama and Medvedev developed a positive relationship it was China that was left on the back seat.
Further back in time, China was ready to give up on its Soviet ally when President Richard Nixon paid his historical visit to China in 1972. During Trump's Presidency, mild steps of rapprochement were witnessed before relations deteriorated again.
Both China and Russia will break this “marriage of convenience” when one gets closer to Washington. Of course, contemplating total political and economic divorce between each other is unimaginable but toying with Washington’s affection is fun for both.
There’s a plus for Moscow when the US and China are at loggerheads. Russia can focus more attention and resources to maintain a high threat level to the European Union which still considers the country a primary security problem.
Moscow’s hard power policies in Georgia in 2008 and annexing Crimea in 2014 are two examples that conflict with China’s soft power strategies. Beijing is silently and gradually building its influence through mega economic plans similar to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in Africa in 2019 totaled $110 billion, almost double that of American investments on the continent which reached almost $42 billion in the same year.
The EU’s priority is substantially different from that of the US. This is again where Moscow can benefit to advance its standing in the new Cold War. What is the unquestionable priority for Washington, is less so for its strongest allies in Europe.
China can manipulate Russia too. By meddling in Central Asia, which Moscow considers its own backyard, mutual accusations of espionage are examples of the two powers combat for their own interests.
In international relations, there is no such thing as full harmony between two states, regardless of how close they are and no matter how they confront a common enemy together. China and Russia are not an exception.
A more manipulative Russian approach in the new Cold War will also send signals to China that Moscow is not simply a follower, it has power to do more than that.
Moscow can advance as Washington and Beijing are stuck within the framework of a Thucydides trap where a dangerous dynamic occurs when a rising power threatens to displace the ruling order.
Despite the fact that Russia lags behind economically in comparison to China and the US, it is powerful enough to reserve its place at the big table.
The constantly changing relations that exist between the three states reminds of George Orwell's novel, “1984.” Three superpowers manipulating the status quo to conspire to allow two at war and one always at peace. We are now witnessing the giant powers morph their position on the global stage depending on the moment.