A New Cold War

Syed Tahir Rashdi
In defense, trade, technology, media and diplomacy, among other areas, the rancor between the Trump administration and China’s ruling Communist Party is worsening. The abrupt closure of China’s consulate in Houston marks the latest incident in a rapidly escalating conflict between China and the United States. Future historians will probably focus on 2020 as the point when intensifying strategic competition between the United States and China turned into a new cold war. The administration is even weighing a blanket ban on travel to the United States by the 92 million members of China’s ruling
Communist Party and the possible expulsion of any members currently in the country, an action that would likely invite retaliation against American travel and residency in China. “I think we’re in a dangerous and precipitous spiral downward, not without cause, but without the proper diplomatic skills to arrest it,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. The severity of the confrontation, he said, “has jumped the wall from specific and solvable challenges to a clash of systems and values.” Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said he was alarmed by the increasing invective from two superpowers that together represent 40 percent of global
economic output. “If we are yelling at each other and slamming doors, then the world is a very unstable place, and businesses are not able to plan,” he said. Here is a look at what has happened in the past few years to exacerbate the tensions:. In the case of the United States and China, the two powers are selectively but rapidly 'decoupling' from each other. Tensions are mounting by the day between the United States and China, leading to talk of a new Cold War. Analysts see important historical differences
but believe the two powers are entering dangerous territory. US President Donald Trump's administration has increasingly gone global against China, pushing other nations to reject its strings- attached aid and telecommunications titan Huawei, and siding unreservedly with Beijing's rivals in the dispute-rife South China Sea. Trump has made China a major campaign issue as he heads into the November election, but the relationship looks unlikely to change in more than tone if he loses to Joe
Biden, who has accused the president of not being tough enough. Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, said the world's two largest economic powers were engaged in a long-term competition over "incompatible strategic visions", including China’s desire to dominate
Asia. hina sees Trump as a  weak and error-prone leader and likely believes the "disastrous" US response to the coronavirus pandemic presented opportunities to press its advantage, he said. It resembles the US-Soviet 'Cold War' in certain respects, but it is not yet as dangerous as that earlier rivalry," Walt said. "One key difference is that the two states are still closely connected economically,
although that relationship is now under considerable strain." US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is taking stern warnings about Beijing around the world, did not reject the Cold War comparison in a recent radio interview. He also noted the US was never as economically intertwined with the Soviet Union, and said the West, therefore, needed to separate from China, especially its technology, which Washington fears will be used for espionage. he superpowers have articulated a lengthening list of grievances and almost no significant interests in common. Both are attempting to push third countries
into an alliance system that would see the world carved into two decoupled blocs. Red versus Blue. With us or against us. Total confrontation. Basically the definition of cold war. Some policymakers and strategic studies analysts still hesitate to employ the cold war concept, wary of the analogy with the decades-long U.S./USSR conflict and its implications for international relations in the medium and long- term. But there is no doubt both countries increasingly see and describe the conflict in existential terms.
If it looks like a cold war, and sounds like a cold war, it probably is a cold war, and the concept illuminates more than it hides. The current U.S./China cold war has been building for some years, just like the U.S./USSR cold war experience which is commonly dated from 1947 but where antecedents were apparent in the latter part of the Second World War when the two countries were still nominally Allies in the United Nations. There have been growing complaints about intellectual property theft, trade imbalances, espionage, diplomatic containment and encirclement and territorial disputes for almost a decade. So just as the U.S./USSR cold war really started much earlier (it was already evident in
1945) the U.S./China cold war began long ago. But in terms of a point where intensifying strategic competition turns into outright cold conflict, 2020 seems to mark the qualitative and quantitative turning point, and serves as much as a convenient date as 1947.
The coronavirus pandemic and sharpest economic recession for a century have heightened tensions and the conflict has now become a central issue in the U.S. presidential election with both major candidates determined to appear tough on China.However, like the U.S./USSR cold war, the U.S./China one is likely to span multiple U.S. administrations and generations of Chinese leaders, with periods of more intense conflict alternating with detente.The conflict is not personal between U.S. President Donald Trump and
China's President Xi Jinping. It increasingly encompasses most of the elite groups in both countries.As patriotic hawks push for a tough line, there is diminishing political, diplomatic and intellectual space for pro-engagement viewpoints in the United States or China.Changes in the top leaders on either side will not necessarily end the conflict, any more than the replacement of Truman and Stalin ended the U.S./USSR conflict.Like the U.S./USSR cold war, the U.S./China conflict is likely to continue until the costs
become intolerable for one or both sides.The U.S./USSR conflict remained mostly a cold war, with actual military combat confined to proxy wars in developing countries such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.The U.S./USSR conflict is often portrayed as a successful example of managing international tensions.But at the time it was not obvious the conflict would remain cold and not escalate into a hot one, for example during the Cuban missile crisis.The current U.S./China conflict is also a classic example of Thucydides Trap, where a rising power (ancient Athens now modern China) challenges an incumbent
one (Sparta now the United States.History suggests such conflicts often end in unintended but real military confrontation, such as that between Britain and Germany in the early 20th century (“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Allison, 2017).Beyond the economic conflict, there is a long list of potential flashpoints that could spark actual fighting, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.Some Cold Warriors on both sides welcome the “strategic clarity” of more open competition and conflict between the United States and China.A Manichean conflict between two blocs,
decoupled economically and diplomatically, offers a tempting re-run of the great conflict of the second half of the 20th century, which ended with the triumph of the United States and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.But that conflict dominated global politics for four decades and the eventual outcome was not obvious in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no guarantee the U.S./China cold war will follow the same trajectory or end the same way.Proponents of a confrontational approach between the two superpowers should be careful what they wish for.(The opinions expressed here are those of the author,
a columnist for Reuters)

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