Rishi Sunak, on his visit to California to seal the Aukus pact, identified China as an “epoch-defining challenge” to the world order. This drew a withering response from Beijing, which said Britain was in “inevitable decline after Brexit” and, along with the US and Australia, was “walking down the path of error and danger”.
This is the sort of braggadocio we hear from Russia in its response to Western military help for Ukraine. More than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the world is polarising once more.
China is seeking to flex its diplomatic muscles in a way it never used to, other than regionally. President Xi Jinping is about to travel to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, after which he may speak to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president.
Whether he sees himself as a potential peace broker remains to be seen, but after the Russian military debacle in Ukraine, Beijing has the upper hand in the relationship. When Mr Xi promised to support Putin in his endeavours, he must have anticipated an easy victory for the Russian army. Now China is propping up Russia’s economy by buying its oil and gas at knockdown prices. Mr Xi is also making a diplomatic foray into the Middle East, where Beijing has brokered an unlikely rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia after a four-decade break in relations.
China is challenging the world order by redefining it in ways that suit its national interests. Mr Xi wants to forge a Sino-friendly coalition among largely non-aligned nations by offering a commercial alternative to US-led international relations exercised through military power. This poses a threat to Western interests, and Mr Sunak is right to be worried about it.