In the future, the world will not be re-divided into two opposing hostile camps as it was during the Cold War, although there is a risk of camps forming again. Therefore, we can summarize the international trend since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began as that of a “small divergence.” That is: an accelerated disruption and reorganization of the global supply and production chains brought about by the post-Cold War wave of globalization; continuous renewal and reworking of global trade and investment rules; and reform and reshaping of global and regional security architecture. Given the important differences in the strategic positioning of the United States toward China and Russia, the risk of “re-campification” (再阵营化) of the world will be greatly reduced as long as China maintains a clear strategic mind and strategic determination.
History always has striking similarities, but one never steps in the same river twice.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is a watershed in the development of the post-Cold War world, and will have a significant and far-reaching influence on the world landscape and international order. Some people exclaim that a “new Cold War” is approaching at an accelerated pace, and the world will be re-divided into two opposing hostile camps. I do not agree with this overly simplistic analogy. While we are looking at the similarities between the current international situation and the tensions of the Cold War period, we need also to see the enormous differences between the two.
What was the Cold War? The Cold War was a prolonged period of confrontation between two evenly matched superpowers, a tense standoff between two military blocs, a contention between two rival ideologies, and a non-interaction between two parallel markets. At present, although there is a strategic game going on between China and the United States and a fierce geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States and Europe, there is no life-and-death ideological conflict, nor is it possible to form two military blocs with clearly demarcated camps, much less two parallel markets that are perpetually estranged from each other. At the same time, however, we cannot help but see the real risk of renewed division into camps. There will always be forces in the world that expect and even push incessantly for armed conflict and confrontation between camps or even for large-scale war, because only then can they maintain or obtain power, money, or psychological satisfaction.
So, how should we summarize the international strategic reality and trends at present and over the next decade? I would like to borrow the concept of “Great Divergence” from Kenneth Pomeranz’s definition of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the East and the West began to gradually take different development paths, with the West taking the lead in transforming into modern industrial societies while China maintained its existing development path, and summarize the post-Russia-Ukraine conflict international trend as a “small divergence.”
The “small divergence” is primarily manifested in three ways.
First is the accelerated disruption and restructuring of the global production and supply chains that were brought about by the post-Cold War wave of globalization. Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by a series of countries, international organizations, and multinational companies have accelerated the loosening of production and supply chains linked to Russia, and the “de-Russification” of the world economy has gained obvious momentum. Even in the energy sector, which is so important and which Russia once thought was rock-solid, its position has suffered a huge impact. The United States has imposed an energy embargo on Russia, and the European Union has made the important decision to cut Russian natural gas imports by two-thirds and oil imports by 90% this year, and to largely eliminate its energy dependence on Russia by 2027. This will undoubtedly lead to a “lose-lose” outcome. But in the context of the ongoing war, there is no doubt that high politics concerns have outweighed low politics issues like economic and energy cooperation. While “de-Russification” is currently in the spotlight, the decoupling from China, especially high-tech decoupling, that began with the U.S.-China trade war, has not been effectively curbed, and the COVID-19 pandemic and control measures that have lasted for three years are further alienating China from the world economic system.
Second is the continuous renewal and reworking of global trade and investment rules. In recent years, the WTO has been subject to many questions, and its regulatory role in international trade and investment has clearly weakened. At the same time, new sets of bilateral and multilateral global trade and investment rules are quietly developing in parallel. CPTPP, the new United States-Canada-Mexico FTA, United States-Japan FTA, and EU-Japan FTA are already up and running, and movement forward on a United States-Europe FTA and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is accelerating. The Russia-Ukraine conflict will accelerate the global “divergence” trend, and one cannot rule out the possibility of the G7 joining a group of emerging economies and even developing countries in forming a large market with zero tariffs, zero barriers, and zero subsidies in the future, and other “non-market economies” such as Russia basically being excluded from the world’s mainstream economic system.
Third is the reform and reshaping of global and regional security architecture. At the global level, many countries around the world have raised serious questions about the declining effectiveness of the UN Security Council in maintaining global and regional security in recent years. On April 26, the 76th session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution co-sponsored by 83 countries stipulating that if one or more of the five permanent members of the Security Council use their veto in the Security Council, the President of the General Assembly shall convene a plenary session within 10 working days to review the veto, allowing all member countries to review and comment on the act of using the veto. This means that the five permanent members must shoulder more responsibility when using the veto. It is actually a disguised way to limit the power of the five permanent members and give more power to the UN General Assembly, and it would significantly affect the functioning of the UN. In the future, the reform of the United Nations, including the Security Council, may accelerate, which would have a major impact on the global security governance system that formed after World War II with the Security Council as the main framework.
In Europe, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused a revitalization after years of crises—the sovereign debt crisis, refugee crisis, and Brexit crisis. NATO has also been roused by the war to emerge from its so-called “brain dead” state and play a more important role in European security affairs. The United States’ position in the transatlantic security system has also risen further. This means that the state of Russian-European relations since the end of the Cold War, which despite long-standing discord could be just about maintained, will come to an end, and a new divide is re-emerging in Europe. However, this is not the Cold War period’s “iron curtain” between two evenly matched rival camps, but a barrier by which the vast majority of European countries “isolate” Russia.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also had a spillover effect on Asia-Pacific security, with some countries viewing China and Russia as one and the same, and one-sidedly believing that China is supporting Russia’s so-called military operation against Ukraine. Influenced by such a misreading, the United States has further stepped up its efforts to reshape the Indo-Pacific security system, striving to build a multi-level, multi-format, multi-field, cross-regional Indo-Pacific security mechanism and strengthen its extended deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region to address the so-called “comprehensive China challenge.”
It must be noted, however, that there are still important differences in the strategic positioning of the United States towards China and Russia, and the strengthening of its Indo-Pacific alliance system is more preventive than offensive in nature. At the same time, on a number of recent important diplomatic occasions, China has reiterated its strategic position on Sino-Russian relations as being “non-aligned, non-confrontational and non-targeted.” China has always criticized the “Cold War mentality” and does not want the world to fall back into “confrontation between camps.” In fact, there are many differences between China and Russia in terms of national strength, identity, strategic goals, and relationships with the world system. As long as China maintains a clear strategic mind and strategic determination, the risk of a “re-campification” of the world will be greatly reduced.
The “small divergence” inspired by the Russian-Ukrainian war is an adjustment phase in the post-Cold War era, one which will generate far-reaching impacts on the future international landscape and world order. The development of the world is not determined a priori by the heavens or the “laws of history,” but hinges on human thought and action. We hope that the world’s politicians will show wisdom, conscience, and courage, so that this period of “small divergence” will end as soon as possible, allowing a more vigorous, more balanced, and fairer wave of globalization to take hold, and for a community of human destiny with coexistence and shared prosperity to be collectively built.