As a new world war rages, an anxious China walks softly

Feb 23, 2024
War. Plastic toy soldiers fighting on map.

A new world war is underway. For those living in developed countries, where gruesome battles remain mere headlines, it may not feel like the earth is burning, but in 2022 a total of 180 military conflicts (defined as resulting in 25 battle-deaths or more in that year) occurred worldwide. The final statistics for 2023 compiled by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, will undoubtedly be much higher and more spine-chilling.

A quarter of the earth’s population, about 2 billion people, live in areas directly impacted by military conflict. Battles and clashes between militaries, militias and zealots have put more people in danger than at any time since World War II.

While the First and Second world wars featured large-scale battles throughout Eurasia, the current new world war is fragmented, but nonetheless global. The duration and impact of today’s wars have not been seen since World War II.

Conflicts around the world now last between eight and 11 years. One in five “resolved” conflicts will reignite within a year. These apparently unconnected conflicts have led to humanitarian disasters in all corners of the world, and draw mega-tons of aid from around the globe.

In 2022, some 110 million people were displaced by war, persecution, violence, and human rights violations. In 2024, that number is expected to jump to 150 million, far exceeding the 60 million people who were displaced during World War II.

The two-year Russia-Ukraine conflict has displaced more than 5.9 million people. The Sudan Civil War that broke out in 2023 has pushed more than 10 million people from their homes. In the past two years, six military coups have occurred in African countries. The brutality and destructiveness of the five-month conflict in Gaza has shocked the world. More than half of the buildings in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged, 85 percent of the population has been displaced, and the growing humanitarian crisis is unprecedented.

Political fragmentation in Venezuela, Guatemala, Ecuador and other countries are leading to still more armed conflicts. The security situation in the Asia-Pacific also faces challenges. The Korean Peninsula, northern Myanmar, the Philippines and other important regions are potential conflict hotspots.

For a considerable number of regions long-term, continuous peace seems increasingly difficult to achieve.

The rise of localised military forces has become a new variable affecting global peace. The Red Cross International Commission has identified 614 non-state armed groups that are a “cause [for] humanitarian concern” with about 60 to 80 million people living under the control of such organisations.

These organisations are highly flexible and can trigger international disputes in unexpected places. If they become a “conflict proxy” for major powers, they can quickly obtain a large number of high-tech weapons that add another level of difficulty to resolving regional conflicts. Some research reports show that in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, a new round of proxy wars is emerging.

To make matters worse, the traditional conflict resolution mechanism is at risk of complete failure, and international multilateral governance mechanisms, such as the United Nations and G20, no longer have the perceived authority or ability to bring about peace. Over the past ten years, no war has ended through international mediation that concluded with a comprehensive peace agreement. The ability of all parties to solve regional conflicts through diplomatic means seems to have greatly weakened.

The lopsided and unreasonable post-Cold-War world order has created an international diplomatic environment that features an “extreme lack of trust.” The world is seemingly being pushed into an increasingly chaotic anarchy.

Some countries see a solution to this disorder in abandoning the liberal institutionalised route highlighted by unbending, high-minded principles and ideology, and returning to the more pragmatic path of realpolitik.

Yet, global military spending has reached a record high. In 2024, the US defence budget reached a record 886 billion U.S. dollars, accounting for about 40 percent of global military expenditures. French military expenditure jumped to 49.7 billion US dollars, an increase of 7.5%; Japan is planning to spend 55.9 billion US dollars, up 16.5%; Russia military spending will jump a whopping 68 percent to reach 120 billion US dollars. In 2023, China reportedly spent 224 billion US dollars on its military, an increase of 7.2% over the previous year.

Military weaponry is also undergoing a massive sea change with the help of AI. Drones and military robots are adding to the destructive powers of this new world war. This undoubtedly enhances the ability of a powerful country to launch, participate, or fund war.

Poor citizens who are recruited to their army stand little chance of surviving the precision of the new generation of AI guided weapons that turn battlefields into meat grinders.

All of this makes me extremely worried: this new world war could further deteriorate and become a larger global war that would undoubtedly inflict a greater number of casualties than any previous war.

Many Chinese scholars once hoped that the United States would play a leading role in the development of true international peace-Pax Americana, as it were. However the influence of US global leadership is waning. Research reports from U.S. think tanks and strategic documents of the US government show the US is increasingly partisan in regional conflicts, even when it means their side will inflict greater suffering and humanitarian pain.

From the perspective of most Chinese people, the current foreign strategy of the U.S. is provoking the global cognitive war, advocating binary opposition and planning multiple regional conflicts.

The multitude of conflicts and chaos in the world interfere with the normal development of emerging economies, and are creating frequent roadblocks to China’s rise. From our perspective this can only be seen as the US intentionally trying to protect the continuation of its hegemony. We feel this is an extremely selfish stance that stands in the way of world peace. A real global leader should be a conflict coordinator, not a troublemaker.

China is always ready to help mediate a conflict, but is unwilling to be the world’s judge, or global cop, even as it contributes 2,000 UN Peacekeepers in various conflicts.

The Chinese are vigilant in regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Indian-Pakistan conflict, northern Myanmar conflict, and the potential military risks relating to Taiwan and South China Sea. China hopes to have strong self-defence military capabilities and realise the true unity of the country as soon as possible.

China does not want to be involved in any military conflict, as its peaceful record over the past 40 years plainly shows. For the Chinese people, being one’s best self is China’s greatest contribution to the world peace.

Perhaps it is difficult for the West to hold much affection for China, as it navigates the friction and differences with and between some of its 22 neighbours. If provoked and its red lines are crossed China will never hesitate to defend its sovereignty. But isn’t this the first rule of every self-respecting country?

However, for a long time, China has been patiently suppressing the impulse to practice military responses, while wisely coordinating various contradictions. Looking into the future, although China faces many temptations of war and may be forced into war, it also hopes to maintain a peaceful damper, which is exactly the Chinese-style efforts that are working hard to alleviate the new world war currently underway.

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