What to Do in an Increasingly Bipolar World
Invite countries to stand on the side of territorial sovereignty and international law.
Published in coordination with the 2023 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a global food crisis, worldwide energy shortages, and massive refugee flows throughout Europe. But perhaps its most significant consequence has been more subtle. The war in Ukraine has accelerated the shift from a multipolar world to a bipolar international system, and what might have been a three-horse race between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing is now squarely a strategic competition between two powers.
The invasion has weakened Moscow. Russian casualties to date have been estimated at 200,000 or higher. The Russian military has lost thousands of pieces of armored equipment, squadrons worth of fighter jets and helicopters, and depleted significant amounts of precision strike munitions and artillery shells. Moscow’s vaunted mercenary force, the Wagner Group, has grown so desperate for manpower that it felt compelled to recruit from prisons and jails. The Kremlin has been slapped with major sanctions and is now more isolated diplomatically than at any time in recent memory, with the United States formally accusing Russia of committing crimes against humanity.
These military, economic, and diplomatic struggles have intensified Russia’s relationship with China, which has welcomed the opportunity “to further advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” as one senior Chinese diplomat put it after bilateral meetings in February. China has already supplied Russia with crucial dual-use technology, including smartphones and computer chips, as well as satellite imagery that was used by the Wagner Group. Furthermore, Chinese state-owned defense companies have provided shipping navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But this is no longer an equal partnership: Russia has been relegated to a junior partner within China’s orbit. Beijing sees strategic opportunities. For example, it can seek oil and gas deals on favorable terms that serve its goal of diversifying energy supply chains for economic and national-security interests.
Yet Russia is growing so weak that even China has qualms. Beijing is increasingly concerned about Moscow turning catastrophically desperate. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is reportedly unnerved by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. And despite the new spirit of cooperation, history tells a story of deep-rooted mistrust between Russia and China. In fact, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sino-Russian relations were marred by mistrust, actual physical conflict over borders, and competition over which country would be the leading Communist power. And while Russia and China appear to currently adopt the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality vis-à-vis the United States, some of that mistrust remains today. For example, the Kremlin has instituted several policies in order to encourage Russians to move to the Russian Far East, primarily out of fear of Chinese nationals and companies populating the mineral-rich region.
Russia’s decline as a world power arrives as U.S.-China tensions rise. Their bilateral relationship has been deteriorating for years, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s human rights abuses, and disagreements over trade. The recent Chinese surveillance balloon incident demonstrated just how tense relations have become, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken canceling a planned trip to China in response. Continued tensions in the Taiwan Strait ebb and flow, while China and the United States exist in what foreign policy expert Ali Wyne has called “strained cohabitation,” which suggests perhaps a desire to “decouple” while being forced, begrudgingly, to live under the same roof. But make no mistake, Washington and Beijing are now taking great strides to reduce dependence on one another, moving critical chokepoints of their respective supply chains to minimize the vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic and highlighted by the war in Ukraine. Semiconductors, microchips, batteries for electric vehicles, and other emerging technologies are at the top of this list.
The war in Ukraine is exacerbating this split. From Beijing’s point of view, it may be favorable that the war is prolonged, as it keeps European states and the U.S. occupied while delaying the long-heralded pivot to Asia—thus allowing China more freedom of operation in its immediate geographical vicinity. But if China moves further down the path of supporting Russia, especially with lethal military aid, it will jeopardize Beijing’s relations with the U.S. and many European countries. U.S. National Security advisor Jake Sullivan commented recently, “I think it would alienate them from a number of countries, including our European allies, and it would put them square into the center of responsibility for the kinds of war crimes and bombardment of civilians and atrocities that the Russians are committing in Ukraine.” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, went as far as to say that China supplying military aid to Russia “would be a red line,” without elaborating as to what the specific consequences would be if China crossed that threshold.
A Chinese move to arm Russia would result in punitive economic and diplomatic measures from Washington and Brussels. It would also hamper China’s signature foreign policy objective, the Belt and Road Initiative, which requires positive trade relations with regional powers, something that would be called into question in a more divisive international political environment. Perhaps the strongest argument for why China would provide lethal aid to Russia is to test its weapons in a theater of war; however, the authors remain skeptical that Xi is willing to risk China’s economic and diplomatic access to the European market, which has already been hurt by China’s egregious human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.
A fissure of this magnitude would further divide the world into distinct geopolitical blocs, particularly those organized around security and technology. Within the broader dynamic of great power competition, there is a contest for currying favor with nations considered to be fence-sitters. Many of these countries are in the Global South and simply do not have the luxury to choose sides. To date, South Africa has been openly supportive of Russia, while other middle powers such as India and Brazil, have been non-committal in an attempt to hedge their bets. China’s recent position paper on Ukraine, calling for the resumption of peace talks while failing to condemn Russia’s actions, is a good example. While pandering to domestic audiences, the position paper also offers faux credibility to China’s claim to being a “responsible global power,” especially when courting countries outside of the U.S. and European bloc while stoking anti-U.S. and anti-NATO sentiments.
So what should the U.S. do? President Biden has spoken about the contest between democracies and autocracies, attempting to frame great power competition in terms of liberal and illiberal regimes. But the more apt characterization, and one which can help play to the strengths of the West, is to view the current global order in terms of countries that protect and believe in sovereignty, territorial integrity, and international law. Those countries falling outside of that category would be making a deliberate decision to cast their lot with other rogue nations.
Mollie Saltskog is a senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group and a research fellow at The Soufan Center.
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center.