"Our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a world-historical gamble that failed. Globalization has failed to bridge preexisting historical enmities. Or rather, neoliberalism has generated new forms of geopolitical conflict."
On May 24, 2022, in a coordinated action, the Russian and Chinese militaries flew nuclear bombers across the Sea of Japan while U.S. president Joe Biden was in Tokyo on a state visit. The Russian Ministry of Defense was quick to point out that the exercise was “strictly in accordance with international law,” since the military planes had not entered Japanese airspace. Japan nevertheless denounced the move as “provocative” and “unacceptable.”1
The prompt to this nuclear posturing was President Biden’s meeting in Tokyo with other members of the “Quad” (Japan, India, Australia). He had just announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a new international effort aimed at deepening ties with the region’s democracies through economic and technological engagement.2 In response, Russia and China showed the world something unseen during the Cold War and most of the two decades following: their militaries united against America and its allies.
The authoritarian alliance of Russia and China was announced in February 2022 in Beijing, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Russian-Chinese joint statement described their new relationship as one with “no limits” and with “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”3 China has since expressed constant, if cautious, support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. In fact, Xi Jinping met Vladimir Putin in mid-September, amid Ukraine’s recent military surge. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s report on their meeting did not mention Ukraine, but welcomed Russian support for the Chinese position on Taiwan. It claimed that, since the beginning of the year, the two countries had “maintained close coordination on the international stage to uphold basic norms of international relations.”4
The buildup to Xi’s recent meeting with Putin was carefully managed. In early September, the Chinese ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, declared the United States the “initiator and main instigator of the Ukrainian crisis,”5 echoing Russian talking points. Li Zhanshu, the third-highest-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party, decried Western sanctions on Russia as unacceptable “external interference,” yet ignored the ongoing bombardment of Ukrainian cities.6 Only the unexpected Ukrainian victories in September left Putin saying he was willing to address Chinese “questions and concerns” about the invasion, without any further specification as to what those might be.7
It is obvious that more than the fate of Ukraine is being determined in Ukraine. Most significantly, as the Russian forces weaken, Putin’s war talk has turned nuclear, threatening the most basic rules of international order that have prevailed since the Second World War. Beyond the possibility of nuclear strikes—which both Putin and that allegedly cooler head, Dmitry Medvedev, chair of Russia’s Security Council, have insisted is a realistic possibility—waging a war around active nuclear plants risks contaminating the whole region. Sham referenda allowing for the Russian annexation of border regions threaten to turn the Ukraine invasion into an ersatz war of “self-defense” by a nuclear Russia.
Across the world, in the Pacific, the question of Taiwan hovers ominously. Li Zhanshu reiterated gratitude for the Russian declaration that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China” and that it “opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” Rumors flew all summer about a planned invasion of Taiwan from the mainland,8 while Chinese military planes buzzing over the island have sent an ominous message. The view of the People’s Republic is clearly hardening. Its State Council put forward a white paper in August declaring “complete national unification” a priority of the Xi government and claiming the right to use force in the service of “national rejuvenation” against “secessionist” forces in Taiwan…