Relations between the United States and China plunged to a nadir in recent weeks. The Trump administration threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China. President Trump had earlier called the coronavirus “Chinese virus” and threatened to seek compensation from China for the damages caused by the outbreak to the U.S. economy. Barely a day passes without some tit-for-tat exchange of barbs, accusations, or actions designed to make life difficult for the other country or to trumpet the superiority of their respective political systems. Seeing all this, one must wonder, if the U.S. and China are sliding into a new cold war?
Will this emerging cold war be more damaging to the world compared to the geopolitical contest between the U.S. and USSR at the end of World War II? Will this deepening cold war between the U.S. and China be a bigger global threat than coronavirus?
U.S.- China rivalry has six major parallels with the Cold War. First, conflicts between the U.S. and China are between the world’s two most powerful countries, one a liberal democracy and the other avowedly communist. Second, each side is bent on bringing down the other’s political system. Third, it is about power as well as ideologies. Fourth, it will be a multidecade struggle for global supremacy. Fifth, another geopolitical bifurcation of the world is likely. Sixth, neither country wants to have a full-scale military confrontation.
There are, of course, significant differences as well. China has taken the place of Russia as the main threat. Strategic competition between the U.S. and the USSR largely played out in the political and military domains; there was little trade between the two competing blocs and the extent of inter-dependency was also low. But that is not the case today, the main contest between the U.S. and China is economic, which means that trade, technology, investment, and strategic industries are central to their rivalry.
We don’t see the kind of proxy wars between America and China which we did during the Cold War. The world is also not bipolar anymore. There are third parties such as the European Union, Russia, India, and Japan. These parties increasingly have a choice whether or not to align with either power as they see fit and on a case by case basis. This leads to a very different kind of international scenario than during the Cold War.
Ties between the U.S. and China were falling apart long before the eruption of coronavirus, but the pandemic has greatly sharpened tensions between the world’s two biggest powers. Relations between the two states have deteriorated to their worst in decades since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. The two nations have imposed a series of new tariffs on each other since 2018, which escalated into a damaging trade war that spilt into other areas such as technology and finance.
Meanwhile, tensions between the US and China are continuing to grow on several fronts – not just trade. Recently, U.S.-China tensions exacerbated even further when President Trump blamed China for not warning the world of the coronavirus pandemic earlier and manipulating the extent of its outbreak. Meanwhile, China has vehemently rejected the notion the virus leaked from a lab.
More recently, China was reprimanded by the U.S. for the forced sterilization of Uyghur women; lobbied Europe to ban Chinese security screening firm Nuctech; imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials held responsible for Hong Kong’s new national security law; and placed 90-day limits on work visas for Chinese journalists. Several analysts have warned that the rivalry could deepen further as Trump is expected to tout a tough stance against China as he seeks a second term in the White House. The U.S. is scheduled to hold the presidential election on November 3.
China, sometimes through the government-owned media, has tried to retaliate by calling Trump’s comments “lunacy” and Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, an “evil politician”. China’s Foreign Ministry branded U.S. criticism of its Uyghur policy as “baseless” while bluntly telling Washington to butt out of Hong Kong affairs. China had earlier withdrawn the press credentials of journalists at three leading U.S. newspapers and threatened to put American companies on a list of proscribed foreign entities in response.
This rapid ascend into U.S.-China rivalry has taken many by surprise. The paradox of U.S.-China relations is that while the world’s two most powerful nations need to coexist, and even cooperate, they compete and collide. For most of this century, Sino-U.S. competition was moderated by the need to work together on a range of global financial, geopolitical, and economic issues that mandated cooperation. However, now, even this mandated cooperation has almost entirely disappeared, aggravated by accusations over responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the depth of their mutual mistrust. It’s messy, complicated and hard. But it gets even worse when both sides commit themselves to unyielding confrontation.
The repercussions of the breakdown in US-China ties are going to be very grave for the world and the global economy because the ability of the Sino-U.S. economies to work together was the keystone of the whole arch of globalization and global trade. With that pulled out, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of disturbance. A decision this important deserves more deliberation, and not in the heat of a pandemic or a presidential election campaign. A great nation’s foreign policy shouldn’t be made based on bat droppings.