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Are we really losing Cold War II or have we already lost it?

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden meeting at the Hiroshima G7 Meeting in 2023.

With the autocratic nations seemingly on the march across the world, it is easy to see why for some commentators, the West is losing this second Cold War, or perhaps in this game of Go, we’ve already lost.

With the autocratic nations seemingly on the march across the world, it is easy to see why for some commentators, the West is losing this second Cold War, or perhaps in this game of Go, we’ve already lost.

Many a strategic analyst or national security leader across the West is quick to run to comparing the current era of emerging multipolar, great power competition as a game of chess, where the objective is to remove an opponent’s pieces from the field.

In contrast, we may have missed both the battleground and point of the 21st century’s great game and geopolitical competition by viewing it through our own myopic lens, rather than viewing it through the lens of our competition, rapidly outplayed in the game of Go.


For those unfamiliar, the objective of Go, a game invented in ancient China nearly 2,500 years ago, is to both capture more territory while limiting your opponent’s room for manoeuvre by encircling an opponent.

In recent years, the post-Second World War global order has come under assault both directly and indirectly in a new wave of “grey zone” or “hybrid” warfare, which has resulted in the creation of a parallel network of economic, political, and strategic organisations and arrangements to challenge the US-led post-war global order.

Adding to this seemingly coordinated pushback against the US-led world order, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have equally sought to directly subvert and undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the United States and its multilateral international organisations that serve as the foundation of this order.

Leading the charge for this new, increasingly contested multipolar world is Mao and now Xi’s China, seeking to leverage its now immense economic, political, and strategic might to right the wrongs of the past, namely the “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes firmly set on usurping the global status quo.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia is now heavily engaged in an ongoing invasion of Ukraine and rapidly entrenching itself within China’s new world order, spearheaded by multilateral organisations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, South Africa) organisation, giving rise to an increasingly disrupted and contested global environment that will directly impact global economic, political, and strategic security for nations like Australia.

Standing in defiance, yet seemingly declining opposition, is the United States, the incumbent global hegemon, which over the last three decades, enjoyed unrivalled dominance and optimism post-Cold War, giving way to a hollowing out of the once-unrivalled US economic and industrial base, and an overdependence on the oil-backed/linked US dollar to reinforce its global might.

Highlighting this is Greg Sheridan of The Australian in a piece titled Authoritarian axis leaves Western alliance for dead in which he inadvertently raises an important question: are we losing this second Cold War, or have we already lost it?

Sheridan began his analysis, saying, “The world is now split into two hostile, competing camps. One is led by the US and its allies, chief among them Australia, but also Britain, Japan, the NATO nations and the US’s other allies in Asia. The other is led by China with its most powerful allies, Russia, Iran and North Korea, and a string of lesser allies still capable of causing a lot of trouble – Venezuela, Cuba, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos and others.”

A new world order on the march?

In a major departure from the precedent of history, the world in which we are now entering is increasingly going to be dominated by the growing mass of nations that would traditionally be defined as “great powers”, yet for all intents and purposes, have largely been considered “periphery” until now.

For Australia, this, in particular, presents a unique conundrum, as the world we face is dramatically different to that of the past eight decades, with an increasing mass of competing “great powers” all with vastly different economic, religious, ethnic, cultural, and strategic interests and ambitions.

This reality is further clouded by the burden of history, namely, the era of colonisation for which many of these emerging great powers share common experiences that continue to colour their view of the Western world, spurred on by revolutionary powers like the People’s Republic of China in particular.

Driving this growth is the period of globalisation that began in the West in the 1980s and speeded up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has seen a range of industries emerge across these nations, resulting in truly astronomical growth for the developing world and dramatically reshaping the global balance of power.

Highlighting this, Sheridan references the recent tour by Vladimir Putin across the fringes of the emerging world, saying, “Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, for the first time in 24 years, visited North Korea. Kim Jong-un welcomed him with open arms, two dictators with a shared dream – weapons, survival, local enemies and a chance to smash the US and its allies. Putin and Kim signed a pact promising each would come to the other’s military aid if it were attacked. This is a thickening of an already substantial alliance. The recent G7 summit condemned Beijing’s provision of materials to Russia that help it fight the war.

“North Korea’s support for Moscow is more direct. North Korea is mostly a ramshackle state, but it’s very good at a few core military things. It sends millions of artillery shells to Russia in exchange for money and other military technology. Iran sends Russia tens of thousands of military drones. Russia makes enormous money selling its resources to China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russia couldn’t sustain war in Ukraine without Chinese help.”

Shifting towards Beijing’s own ambitious plans for dominance and primacy in the Indo-Pacific, Sheridan referenced the recent state visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Qiang and the rise of “Panda diplomacy” as a useful tool in the arsenal of the world’s revisionist, autocratic powers.

Sheridan stated, “‘Panda diplomacy’ dominated, as though the Communist Party of China is nothing but a big, cuddly, cute bear, wanting only to dole out riches to Australia by lifting illeg­al trade sanctions it imposed contrary to its obligations under its free trade agreement with Australia, and under a sublimely absurd agreement that the two nations are ‘comprehensive strategic partners’...

“But Li’s visit was bookended by two intrusions of reality. Before Li’s visit, Foreign Minister Penny Wong pointed out that Australia was in permanent strategic competition with Beijing in the South Pacific. And as Li left, though conveniently after he had taken to the air, Australia joined the US, the Philippines and others in condemning Chinese aggression in Philippine waters, which Beijing claims for its own, that resulted in serious injury to one Filipino,” Sheridan detailed further.

Challenges closer to home

This ultimately has major implications in the Indo-Pacific and for Australia in particular, especially amid mounting Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and around Taiwan and the belief held by many in Australia’s policy-making community that any conflict will be quick and decisively resolved in our favour.

Sheridan detailed this, saying, “Australia is invited to participate in two fantasies. The first is that China and its allies, while disagreeable, won’t ultimately break the system. They are reasonable. We can negotiate an outcome. We must always de-escalate and establish good process, like Li’s visit to Australia. The second, interlocking fantasy is that Australia and its allies, chiefly of course the US, are well prepared and would prevail in any conflict.

"Both fantasies are entirely false. They lead to perhaps fatal complacency, not only in Australia but also in the US, Britain, France and in many of the allied democracies,” he explained.

Anyone remember the hubris on both sides of the First World War in the early days? Because it is all sounding a little too familiar.

While there is agreement on the “threat aspect”, namely the mounting threat presented by Beijing and its designs and ambitions for the Indo-Pacific, how we respond to these challenges ranges from continued blind trust in a bureaucracy that, in large part, hasn’t adjusted its world view since the end of the Cold War, or the “she’ll be right” mentality to “it’s all too hard, it’s too complex, so let’s not really bother” and everything in between.

Highlighting this, Dennis Richardson, former head of the Defence Department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told the audience of the NewsCorp Defending Australia summit that the major parties tend to “pretend” there is consensus on defence, so that needs to change and fast.

In doing so, we will need to ensure that the body politic is thoroughly informed about the costs associated both in terms of Defence spending and what it will cost over the coming decades, and importantly, what it will cost if we don’t get this right.

Richardson added, “It’s important for both sides of politics to stick to capability decisions when they are made … (instead of) this business about changing everything when you come into office ... Let’s not change it.”

To achieve this, Richardson called on both sides of the nation to leverage some of the positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, namely the sense of urgency and the clear and consistent communication between our policymakers and the public will prove critical, especially because we’ve done it so recently and its feasibility is still present in the public consciousness.

Final thoughts

If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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