Top foreign policy officials from the United States and China spent most of the last weekend at the Munich Security Conference stressing that their governments were not seeking a new Cold War, but amid tense rhetoric and accusations, a chill across much of the world is already being felt.
Finding Perspective: The Munich gathering is Europe's premier foreign policy conference and has long been a mainstay for leading officials from the West and elsewhere to hobnob and take the pulse of the current world order.
This year's diagnosis was far from optimistic. While the West showed that it is perhaps more united now than in recent years and that support for Ukraine is entrenched -- a message reinforced by U.S. President Joe Biden's unannounced visit to Kyiv -- it's hard to shake the sense that the West remains more out of step than ever with the rest of the world and that the damage done by Russia's invasion of Ukraine can't be undone.
Rightly or wrongly, Beijing clearly believes the West is in decline and is now sensing an opportunity to shore up its rising global status.
In Munich, China was represented by top foreign policy official Wang Yi who projected a message of self-confidence and swagger to Western officials as he took aim at the United States and accused it of fueling the war in Ukraine.
Wang also said China would launch its own peace plan for ending the war and that it would underscore the need to uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the UN Charter.
Those calls came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China may be preparing to give weapons and ammunition to Russia, which would mark a significant escalation in the war and Beijing's relationship with Moscow.
China has brushed the accusations aside but not denied them, saying Beijing "will never accept U.S. finger-pointing or coercion on China-Russia relations."
In interviews with German and Italian newspapers following the accusations from Washington, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that China supplying weapons would result in a "world war," and that he hoped Beijing would refrain from doing so after making a "practical assessment."
Why It Matters: The United States has few good cards to play with China and, given the fallout from the Chinese spy balloon incident, a stabilization of relations isn't on the horizon.
Still, it's unclear if Beijing is willing to cross this threshold and suffer the consequences for explicitly supplying Moscow with weapons.
In the meantime, China's mention of a peace plan was met skeptically by U.S. and European officials, who largely see it as a move about optics as Beijing continues to up its standing across the Global South, where Chinese calls to portray the West as warmongers and itself as a peacekeeper have a receptive audience.
"China wants to be seen as very strong and as a leader of the global south and a peace promoter," a senior European Union official told RFE/RL. "[And] no, Europe is not wooed."
One Thing To Watch
It's hard to go a week without seeing new warnings from Western officials about Chinese intent to take over Taiwan. Such concerns are not unwarranted, especially as Chinese officials -- including Wang in Munich -- do little to dispel such fears.
But Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy, recently offered a more sober assessment. In a recent interview with Defense News, he said that he doesn't "see anything that indicates [an invasion of Taiwan] is imminent in the next couple of years" and that Beijing is far more likely to pursue avenues beyond military force, such as political and economic pressure, in any attempt to annex Taiwan.
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