Beijing is Winning Cold War II: What is Our Way Ahead?

By Robbin Laird

One of the key questions facing Australia is how to deter China and what exactly needs to be deterred and where they should cooperate with their major trading partner.

During my current visit to Australia, I had a chance to discuss this challenge with ANU’s Andrew Carr and will publish that interview in the coming days.

But with the world in significant change, the old narrative of the rules based order versus the authoritarians won’t work.

Various forms of authoritarian regimes are finding ways to cooperate with countries like Brazil, and we simply do not have a credible foreign and defense policy narrative to deal with the world as its is evolving versus the world we wish we could see.

This weekend, The Australian‘s foreign policy commenter, Greg Sheridan wrote a thoughtful piece which underscored that in his view President Xi was wining Cold War II. While the U.S. President is visiting Ireland and hobnobbing with his imagined past, President XI has courted European leaders and the newly elected President of Brazil.

Sheridan put it this way: “The Cold War 2.0, if that’s what we’re living through, has taken a very bad turn for the US and its allies, including Australia. Just now, we’re losing. Over the past few weeks China has won every encounter, strongly advancing its interests and its authoritarian world view, making tangible progress in undermining the US alliance system. The Western world, led by the US, has gone backwards.

“If this were a rugby league match, China has just scored three quick tries. We shouldn’t trivialise this, of course. There’s a deadly strategic competition under way and we’re doing poorly.”

I thought his comment on the U.S. Administration’s Middle East policy was right on in highlighting a key challenge facing Washington whoever follows the current Administration will have to sort out:

“The Biden administration behaved in the Middle East like second-rate Bourbons, having learnt nothing and forgotten nothing since the last time Democrats ruled Washington. It went down two dry gulches, trying forlornly to secure a nuclear deal with Iran and reinvesting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Plus making a lot of noise about climate change and gender equity. As a result, Iran is on the brink of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia has moved away from its alliance with the US and Egypt contemplates selling rockets to Russia.”

Jim Durso in his recent piece on the Middle East underscored a theme similar to Sheridan.

“If the U.S. finally does “pivot to Asia” it will find that China has filled the vacuum in the Middle East by partnering with nominal allies of Washington that are comfortable with state-directed development.

“Those governments may not be “democratic” by the U.S. administration’s standards but, if they are attentive to the needs and aspirations of their citizens, they will demonstrate staying power no matter how many “civil society” groups the U.S. embassies sponsor.”

The world is changing ways that do easily fit any of the narrative approaches generated currently by Washington, whether progressive, liberal world order folks. or the legacy conservative positions. We need a 21st century version of a realist strategy that understands how we will protect our interests in a world not of our making.

For my most recent look at the discussion in Australia about defence and deterrence, see the following: