'US and China enter a new cold war'

US president Donald Trump (L) and China`s president Xi Jinping.
US president Donald Trump (L) and China`s president Xi Jinping.File photo

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 two superpowers are now engaged in conflict across multiple geographic theatres (South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and Latin America) and multiple vectors (trade, investment, technology, espionage, international institutions, health policy, naval, air power, missiles and territorial disputes).

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The 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 US/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.

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Antecedents

The current US/China cold war has been building for some years, just like the US/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 US/USSR cold war really started much earlier (it was already evident in 1945) the US/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 US presidential election with both major candidates determined to appear tough on China.

However, like the US/USSR cold war, the US/China one is likely to span multiple US administrations and generations of Chinese leaders, with periods of more intense conflict alternating with detente.

The conflict is not personal between US 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 US/USSR conflict.

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Resolution

Like the US/USSR cold war, the US/China conflict is likely to continue until the costs become intolerable for one or both sides.

The US/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 US/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 US/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 US/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.