The threat of global conflict between the West, Russia and China is increasing

Increasing geopolitical tensions could lead to a China-Russia alliance and a new bipolar alignment that could risk large-scale violence in several regions.

Ukrainian tanks at the border of Crimea global conflict
Ukrainian soldiers and tanks are stationed in Andriivka, Ukraine in March 2014, in case of a Russian invasion. Russia’s annexation of Crimea that month was a symptom of the increased global tensions arising at the time. © Getty Images

Tensions across the globe have increased over the last two years and accelerated in the autumn of 2014 with the start of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks openly of his country’s nuclear strength. Spending on military budgets is increasing in many countries. And a desperate Russia is looking for new alliances with an emerging China as the West’s sanctions begin to bite. This could lead to a new Russia-China alignment with a common foe in the United States.

There are frozen conflicts on the borders of Georgia and Moldova. Crimea was annexed by Russia in March 2014 and the ceasefire agreed in September in eastern Ukraine is being ignored as Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists continue to fight.

Rearmament is taking place throughout eastern Asia as tensions remain on high alert between a rising China and its eastern neighbors.

Increasing tensions

There have been several incidents that have captured the headlines. Fighter aircraft have increased their patrols over the Baltic and North Sea and air space where NATO and Russia meet. Russian cruisers were operating off Australia’s coast during the G20 summit in Brisbane in November, as President Putin left the summit before its formal closure.

Warships from the Vietnamese navy made a friendly visit to the Philippines to demonstrate that the two countries are collaborating at a time of potential Chinese operations in the South China Sea. Russia and China’s agreed to carry out joint exercises in the Mediterranean in 2015. This can only be interpreted as a provocation to the West.

What makes these headlines relevant is that each, taken on its own, appears unimportant, but together they are symptoms of a dangerous development in the global political framework. There are a few different areas of tension.

Europe and Russia

Russia was the core of the Soviet empire when it collapsed in 1991. Russia was deeply affected by the loss of huge territories in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, but also by the loss of its sphere of influence in Central Europe, the former members of Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CoMEcon). The Kremlin resents that these countries are now NATO and European Union members.

Russia is re-emerging after the implosion of the Soviet Union and intends to reassume its role as a leading world power. The problem is that this is not based on economic efficiency and demography but on political and military might. Russia believes it has to control neighboring countries to be safe and to preserve its sphere of influence.

This became clear during the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict and other incidents such as cyber attacks on the Baltics in 2007. Since then, Russia has continuously increased its military budget with the goal of promoting its policies.

Ill-fated relationship

Russia’s other areas of key concern are Ukraine, Moldova and the Balkans. Some experts say it was the West’s naive and ill-prepared approach to Ukraine in the context of the European Union’s well-intended Eastern Partnership which triggered something in Ukraine.

Depending on one’s point of view, it either gave Russia the opportunity to act, or it forced Russia to act, and the United States and Europe responded with sanctions. The Cold War with Russia, which ended in 1991, has returned. The Ukraine situation is not isolated, but a symptom of the ill-fated relationship between the West and Russia.

Russia failed to sufficiently develop its internal economy after the end of communism. Now it depends heavily on energy exports. Failing economies often lead politicians to blame their problems on the activities of foreign powers. This can lead to populist and aggressive policies – a common pattern of Russian politics – and part of a global pattern.

China and the U.S.

China is emerging as a world power but feels constrained by the U.S., the existing leading world power. The U.S., understandably from its perspective, does not want to lose its influence in the Pacific.

Emerging superpowers with hegemonic ambitions always make smaller neighbors feel uncomfortable and threatened, particularly when the political and value systems are completely different. At its simplest, this is the case between China and its neighbors South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. A tense relationship also exists between China and Taiwan, which China considers is part of its territory.

Logically, all these countries are U.S. allies because they want protection, but all of them have close and important economic ties with China. Vietnam, which claims to have a similar political system to China, is leaning towards the U.S. because China poses a threat. Political tensions are high, while occasional military clashes, mostly over territorial rights at sea, sometimes occur.

Territorial disputes

China feels geographically contained by the alliance between its neighbors and the U.S. because this can block China’s access to the Pacific Ocean and to the waterways between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These are existential for China with its huge need for raw materials.

Russia believes that NATO and the European Union are challenging its attempts to recreate its sphere of influence.

China also has some territorial disputes with India that sometimes lead to conflict, while India is threatened by China’s increased naval activities in the Indian Ocean. But a permanent conflict exists between India and Pakistan, mainly concerning the unresolved dispute over Kashmir. Several wars have been fought between them over the last 60 years. India also believes that some terrorist activities in India are initiated by terrorist movements from Pakistan.

But Pakistan is of huge geopolitical interest to China because of the transport route it offers between western China and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are developing the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean and building railway and highway links from Gwadar to western China. A new war between Pakistan and India could involve China backing Pakistan.

New bipolarity

Russia believes that NATO and the European Union, or the U.S. and Europe, are challenging its attempts to recreate its sphere of influence, which would provide it with reassurance and comfort as it moves back to the status of a leading power.

Russia feels humiliated by its treatment by the West in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse when it faced a period of extreme political and economic weakness. At that stage, Russia had no option but to accept the advance of NATO and the EU into its former sphere of influence in Central Europe and the Baltics. The Baltic states were members of the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s comfort zone, or zone of influence today, could be seen in a historic perspective perhaps based on the Yalta conference in 1945 between Russian leader Joseph Stalin, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Mr. Roosevelt agreed to let the Russians have control of Central Europe on a line which later became the Iron Curtain. This line could constitute what Russia considered, in the past, the Western limit.

Impact of sanctions

Georgia and Ukraine were a clear “red line” in the Kremlin’s view. Russia may not directly want to annex these states, but it would be unwilling to concede full sovereignty on foreign and military affairs to them. Western foreign policies in word and deed have often ignored Russia’s sensitivity. Russia accepts firm negotiations – but not insults. U.S. President Barack Obama’s remark that Russia is just “a regional power” insulted Moscow and improved President Putin’s approval rating at home for his hardline approach towards Ukraine.

Western sanctions have not broken Russia so far. Russia has several years of foreign exchange reserves, despite the drop in oil prices. The sanctions have united Russians and could drive it to produce more at home and look for alternative markets. Russia believes it is being pressured by the West, while its actions are legitimate and the West is decadent.

Marriage of convenience

The sanctions have probably accelerated another trend – a rapprochement between the two large powers of Russia and China, both of which feel contained by the West. There is considerable distrust and potential for a collision of interests between them. But a temporary “marriage of convenience” in opposing the West is happening. This rapprochement seems to be among the population as well as the leadership in Russia. A recent poll shows that 51 per cent of Russians consider China as their best friend, double the number six years ago.

China considers itself a hegemonic power, the leader of Asia and an equal to the US. This will increase tensions between the U.S. and China, as China is seen to be a rising power, while the U.S., although stronger, is declining. Old imperial China saw itself as the only sovereign country, superior to all others, and their neighbors as tributary countries. Its current leadership, while not expressing itself in these terms, probably has similar perceptions.

Natural allies

The close alliance between Asia-Pacific countries and the U.S. therefore poses a major challenge for China. China’s financial system has problems and its economy is not growing at the same rate as in previous years. Its environmental issues are enormous. There is a greater potential for internal tensions which could lead to more aggressive behavior.

Russia is a potential ally but there is little trust between Moscow and Beijing. Cooperation on energy is increasing and Russian gas could help China’s industry and the environment. Russia is a natural ally in opposing the U.S., but China could have some hesitation, as working too closely with Russia may limit some foreign policy options. But military collaboration is increasing.

The foreign policies of the two countries are looking for further allies in trade and politics. Russia is using the tensions between Turkey and the U.S. to establish stronger ties with Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO after the U.S.

Military collaboration

President Putin, who visited Turkey in December 2014, would see looser ties between Turkey and the U.S. as a huge success. China is building on its excellent relations with Pakistan and on a charm offensive with South Korea, one of its biggest trading partners.

China is the largest trading partner for all southeast Asian countries, even though they feel threatened politically. Both China and Russia are sensitive to what they regard as Western value-driven interference in their internal, political, social or economic affairs.

But China’s neighbors, from India in the south to Vietnam and the Philippines, to Japan and South Korea in the north, have all increased their economic and military collaboration among themselves, but also their military collaboration with the U.S. NATO is also increasing its presence on its eastern border towards Russia.



The optimal solution in relations with Russia would be for courageous and far-sighted European politicians to demonstrate the West’s strength by increasing defense budgets. A framework for peaceful relations in the future could be established based on this strength, while guaranteeing the sovereignty of intermediate countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Extra spending on defense is, however, unlikely.

The more likely scenario is a renewed Cold War with some frozen conflicts from the Baltic Sea to Georgia, including the Balkans. This would be concentrated on Ukraine. An economic war with mutual sanctions would continue, to the detriment of everybody, but especially those countries caught in the middle of the conflict.

Under this scenario, Russia would be isolated and could be driven to become China’s junior partner. This would encourage the development of a new bipolar world with even more conflict zones than there were when the Soviet Union was in existence.

A Russian-China alliance would enhance the likelihood that China could launch an attack on one of its neighbors, risking the involvement of the U.S. This could create a very explosive situation. Increased tensions multiply the chances of conflicts breaking out. Political accidents could create chain reactions which limit options. These could lead to major conflict.

Russia has already talked about war and seems prepared – if only verbally – to use its military capabilities abroad including its nuclear weapons. A war between the West and a Russia-China block cannot be excluded and could be one of mankind’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes.

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