Has a Cold War already started between the United States and Peoples Republic of China?

The rift between the United States and China threatens to become a chasm. 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.

The United States of America has castigated China 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; literally on the verge of banning Chinese apps like Tictok and placed 90-day limits on work visas for Chinese journalists.

Tensions between China and the United States have reached the most acute levels since the countries normalized diplomatic relations more than four decades ago, with the American government’s ordering that China close its Houston consulate.

In retaliation, China’s Foreign Ministry branded U.S. criticism of its Uighur policy as “baseless” while bluntly telling Washington to butt out of Hong Kong affairs. Beijing had earlier withdrawn the press credentials of journalists at three leading U.S. newspapers and threatened to put American companies on a list of proscribed foreign entities. It also ordered the US embassy in Lhasa to be closed as a retaliatory step which the United States did with China consulate in the US.

The Coronavirus

This rapid decline of relationship rather indulging into conflict has taken many by surprise. For a major part of 21st. century, the Sino-US competition was moderated by the need to work together on a range of global economic, financial, and geopolitical issues that mandated cooperation. But these cooperative impulses have almost entirely disappeared with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic which the United States pointing finger towards the Chinese authorities for their inability to contain the virus to the extent of holding responsible for global pandemic which has further exposed the depth of their mutual mistrust.

Beijing thinks Washington is bent on containing China to prolong the declining power of the United States while denying China its rightful place on god’s green earth. China has already vehemently rejected the US administration’s attacks over the virus and has criticized the poor American government response to the outbreak.

A severe test on trade ties

The US president Mr. Donald Trump won office in 2016 partly on his accusations that China was exploiting the country’s trade relationship with the United States by selling goods far more than it purchased. After resuming office, he decreed a series of punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and China retaliated, in a trade war that has now lasted more than two years. While a truce was effectively declared in January with the signing of what the administration called a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal, most tariffs were not eased.

A common mis-perception however, is that mounting differences over trade and technology supremacy are primarily responsible for the spike in hostilities. But while important in themselves, the U.S.-China trade and tech wars are symptomatic of a deeper and more dangerous geopolitical divide rooted in their clashing strategic ambitions and contrasting political systems.

PC: Google

The shift from cooperation to strategic rivalry has triggered an intensifying debate about whether the world is on the precipice of a new Cold War. Skeptics might refute but there are clear tell tale signs that can be drawn parallel with the first Cold War.

  • U.S.-China rivalry is between the world’s two most powerful states, one a liberal democracy and the other avowedly communist (same as was with US and Russia).
  • It is about values as well as power projection.
  • It will probably be a multi-decade struggle for global ascendancy.
  • Neither side wants a full-scale all out military confrontation.

However, a significant difference between the Cold War with Russia and that of China is strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union largely played out in the political and military domains; there was little trade between the two competing blocs. But the main contest between the U.S. and China is economic, which means that trade, investment, technology, and strategic industries are central to today’s rivalry.

At that time the GDP of Soviet Union was nearly 40% that of the the United States but China is already 65% and growing. So, if either of the economies snap, the catestrophical effect would be felt across globally. With the shift of global trade from Atlantic to Pacific, reflecting Asia’s rise with decline in Europe, the geographical center of gravity for control of trade routes thereby holding eminense, has pivoted at Indo-Pacefic rim where their interests collide and is fast becoming epicenter of several potential triggers for military standoff.

Although a cold war is below a shade the threshold of a major “hot” war, it could easily result in one unless carefully managed. ensions between rising and incumbent powers often precede military conflict or an extended period of confrontation and instability. This muscle flexing is foreshadowing an era of heightened strategic competition that would be enormously disruptive to international trade and world order.

The core problem in U.S.-China relations is their diametrically opposed political systems and associated values, compounded by their sense of exceptionalism. The problem becomes more acute when both sides suspect their rival of wanting to impose undesirable elements of their own system on the other or to propagate them internationally. These perceptions are aggravating U.S.-China tensions, making them more difficult to resolve.

That said, both the countries must come to acknowledge that fact to realize them as adversaries without and prejudices. A frank acknowledgement that the United States and China are now adversaries is a necessary precondition for a realistic strategic accommodation that constrains their rivalry and avoids worst case outcomes.

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