US-China row: New Cold War?

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US-China row: New Cold War?

Sunday, 10 February 2019 | Makhan Saikia

Today, the US and China are on the cusp of a New Cold War (NCW). The NCW is strongly characterised by sustained clashes either on the military or on the political front between the two opposing geopolitical power blocs. Unlike the phases of the Cold War I, wherein two distinct ideological camps were led by the US and the former USSR, the NCW has moved beyond the point of traditional bipolarity.

And, the current conflict has seen the involvement of more than two ideology-driven actors. Now, the new lines of tensions are generated around flashpoints engaging multiple nations and groups such as America, Russia, China, the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In recent years, the US has been embroiled in a potentially debilitating course of collision with China irrespective of whether there is a Republican or a Democratic President. With Donald Trump’s vitriolic and boastful pronouncements, at times sharply aggressive, bilateral relationship with China has badly dived down despite having regular diplomatic forays and ministerial level engagements. It is a fact that there is a genuine schism between the two superpowers. Certainly, the new variants of conflicts would be fought in the realm of technology. Further, it would be lawfare than warfare.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Xi’s “China Dream” of course do not match. But then, there has been a phalanx of issues, charges and counter-charges that finally have descended upon both Washington and Beijing probably to take a parallel, but rivalrous route as of today.

Both are at each other’s throats on multiple fronts wherein their vested interests lie and underneath are the race for the global leadership. They are working towards mutually incompatible goals in the international trading system. Today, China does not buy the thesis that America wants it to realise its full potential without tweaking the status quo of the global political order. Worryingly, Trump wants to roll back the global supply chain system and signals going towards the age of mercantilist approaches for economic development. With this, an alarming rise of nationalist trends in both the countries simply add to a bleak future in global business. Further, in the past, the US administration is accusing China of stealing massive resources in the field of Intellectual Property (IP), adopting predatory approaches to foreign investment and finally, making its market inaccessible to global players. Trump has already charged a tariff of $234 billion of goods China exports to the US. Simultaneously, China has initiated the legal process at the WTO to hear the charges imposed by the Trump Administration. But what the Trump Administration has done to China has received considerable support among the business tycoons in the US.

Beyond the economic front, some key developments in China have also emboldened Xi to move on a confrontation course with the US. By abolishing the term limits on Chinese presidency last year, Xi has clearly signaled that he would do anything to make China a global power, even if it risks irking the US global interests. Interestingly, even before making formal announcements for casting aside presidential term limits, Xi had ordered the Chinese armed forces to counter the Pentagon with fast modernisation drives in air, sea, space and in cyber world. However, this was followed partly in response to Trump’s announcement for revitalising American nuclear forces. Mostly beyond the economic interests, what is causing irritation in bilateral relations is the completion between the US and China for a dominant role in the Asia-Pacific region. With Xi becoming life-President, his intention to carry forward the grand “Dream” might indicate building an “Asian Order” under his leadership. Thus, the US has to either sacrifice its vital interests in the Asia-Pacific, meaning not insisting on a dominant role in the region for ever or it has to re-adjust its power sharing dynamics with China.

But then some analysts argue that the NCW is full of political gimmicks and new tactics to manoeuver benefits of global business and trade on one’s own advantage. It is all about media glaze and show of strength. It’s a virtual war. They say that contemporary politics full of false analogies. The Cold War of the yesteryears is unimaginable and even if it takes place at all between China and the US, it would never last the way it did between the US and the USSR.

What are the chances of convergence and collaboration between the US and China? Nearly 1,000 meetings, starting from the summit level talks to mid-ranking bilateral official exchanges take place between Washington and Beijing each year. It is widely believed that economic interdependence is what is putting brake on the outbreak of an immediate conflagration. Unlike the Cold War days when the bellicosity was driven both by ideological supremacy and a consistent arms race between the USSR and the US, today it is spearheaded by an ever growing trade war accompanied by tech war.

Is there a link between the latest episode of Huawei and the game plan orchestrated by a US-led group of nations to counter a resurgent China? Currently, the US Attorney General has charged Huawei with 23 crimes ranging from sanctions-busting, stealing corporate secrets and IPRs, obstructing justice, etc. And at the centre of the controversy is Meng Wanzhou, the company’s CFO and daughter of its founder, who is accused of misleading banks about the company’s business and violating US sanctions.

She is under arrest in Canada and the US authorities are awaiting an extradition of Wanzhou from that country. The US officials view Huawei as a threat to its national security. They say that its 5G network which is spread across 170 nations today may be used by China for spying or in times of war for sabotage. However, till date there is no public evidence to what the US is saying.

But on the other hand, there are good reasons to be wary. The way Huawei operates is full of obfuscation and opacity. Its 5G networks dispersed designs make it truly difficult to monitor. Therefore, the China Inc should demonstrate well before the world that it can be trusted. At its core it should build up a transparent corporate governance system open to the international community. If charges against Huawei are proved, it would set a dangerous trend for Chinese IT firms and would invite counter charges on top US tech giants. Hence, it is time to reorganise serious talks between the US and China to clear the massive mistrust. This can gradually help alleviating the shadow of the NCW.

The real determinants and the conducting of a Cold War in a truly globalised world is a utopia only. Undeniably, there is a streak of squeamishness among the Trump team and his confidants in regard to what has been unfolding between the two nations. On the rise is the death of the US-sponsored liberal order that has swept the world in the last two decades. The irony is that at the moment both the sponsor and the mentor (i.e. the US) are shying away from shouldering the responsibility of leading the international community to the next century. At the core of this paradox what irks the current US establishment is the shifting (preferably fast) balance of power in the world. The Trump administration’s strategy to engage in spasmodic to consistent fighting with China can nowhere contribute to the growth of a world system that can herald peace and stability. It is harmful for the US and China.

Today the US is as vigilant on China and the rest of its potential threat points. There is nothing new in this. Trump is not the only US President who has targeted China. It is a long drawn game plan for global supremacy and leadership. Equally, China’s growing global presence is offering its leadership and massive spying network a golden opportunity to peep into the ifs and buts of the so-called liberal order.

Thus the battle spreads across the fields of global terrorism, trade war, tech war, and finally to lawfare. In reality, no one wins in all these master games, simply because of ever increasing economic interdependence on one another and accessibility to advance technology and information. Henceforth, the state of intransigence between the US and China goes on. Specially for Trump, when an election is looming large over his unpopular presidency both at home and abroad accompanied by a cantankerous Congress, he should have been extremely careful, as the way warned by legendary Greek statesman Pericles some centuries back: “What I fear more than the strategies of my enemies is our own mistakes.” Whereas for Xi, it is his own fiefdom, he is nowhere going to be answerable to his voters. He rules China as long as the Communist Party desires. After all he is widely designated as the reincarnation of Mao Zedong.

Therefore, when the stand-off comes into place between the global giants, it must be viewed from what sort of political system each rules over. Accordingly, they are pressed over to perform and bring home back a sense of security, pride and leadership. Arguably, with an increasing trend of populist politics around, a renewed vibe of nationalism backed by localism has grown louder. And, nevertheless, both Trump and Xi are largely influenced by such ethnocentric narratives. This trade and tech war is deeply enmeshed in a new trend for nations set forth by a post-globalist era wherein we all witness a sharp transition beginning from bipolarity to uni-polarity and to a well-contested multi-polarity. But it is interesting to see “sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes” (but who watches the watchers). Only time will tell us. Let’s permit history to display its inevitable tendencies as it used to. Winston Churchill once made plea in the British House of Commons, “Democracies are quite strong enough to negotiate, and would only weaken itself by waiting.”. Though the context and possible consequences are entirely different, it’s all about “containment” of an offspring of socialism only, so America must reflect back whether to negotiate or to summarily lose the game to China.

(The writer is an expert on international affairs)

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