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China and U.S. rivalry: is this a start of a novel Cold War?

Shruti Chaudhary

With the escalation of U.S.-China confrontations and the worsening of their trade relations, voices in both Washington and Beijing have emerged warning about the danger of a new Cold War between America and China. Compared to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, there are certain similarities to the current situation, such as an equal power balance between the countries and the existence of an ideological confrontation. However, as a result of a more globalised world, there are also many important differences, making the chances of a new Cold War slim.

Rising tensions

Relations between the U.S. and China have recently plunged to a great low owing to the COVID-19 outbreak and its significant implications on the U.S. Recently, President Trump exclaimed to “cut off the whole relationship” with China because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is first believed to have originated in Wuhan. President Trump also labelled the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” and indicated his desire to seek compensation from China for the damages caused by the outbreak.

Earlier this month, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on Chinese journalists employed in the country, reducing their work period to 90 days. President Trump also proposed an extension of a ban on U.S. companies from using telecom equipment developed by “companies positing national security risks” for one more year.

China has responded in kind, sometimes through its state-run media, referring to President Trump’s exclamations as “lunacy” and Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, as an “evil politician”.

What is the current status of the crisis in relations between the U.S. and China?

Various statements and actions by the U.S. are consolidating long-believed suspicions in Beijing that the U.S. and its allied countries are bent on oppressing China’s emergence as an economic, diplomatic and military power.

The rising confrontations between the two great superpowers have made many experts believe that this might be the beginning of a new Cold War. The encounters between China and the U.S. over the pandemic is resulting in wider and graver tensions on trade, technology and other areas — altercations that may only increase in frequency as President Trump makes his dispute with Beijing a central theme of his re-election campaign in the coming months.

But relations between the two countries started declining well before the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2017, the National Security Strategy of the Trump administration called China as “a revisionist power” attempting “to erode American security and prosperity” and “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests”. Then, in September 2019, while giving a response to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford’s exclamation that the American government was designing a strategy to address potential "security challenges" by China, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing reported “[w]e request relevant officials in the [U.S.] to stay away from the Cold-War mentality and zero-sum game mindset...”.

For the US side, “[t]here is a major reassessment of U.S.-China interdependence,” said Julian Gerwirtz, a scholar at Harvard’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs. “It’s not clear to me how this will end,” Kurt Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs, commented. “I really think at the moment that both the American and Chinese standing have been compromised on the international platform. And it appears like we’re fighting while Rome burns.”

Does this signify that both nations are already in a Cold War

There are certain similarities between the current crisis and the Cold War. The political leaders of both China and the U.S., like the Soviet Union and the U.S. back then, view each other as their primary rivals. We can also see the constant personal attacks between both countries, such as the targeting of ethnic Chinese professionals in the U.S. and of American individuals or entities in China.

But, there are also many key differences. For example, there are no emissary disputes between the U.S. and China which we saw during the Cold War. Also, the bipolar world of the Cold War era no longer exists anymore. There are various powerful third parties such as the EU, Russia, India and Japan. These countries, to an increasing extent, have the option of whether to align themselves with either power as they see fit and on a case-by-case basis. This means that there is a very different kind of international order currently than what existed during the Cold War.

However, the ties between the U.S. and China could take an uglier turn if President Trump is re-elected later this year. The Cold War was clearly and mostly ideological between the communist and capitalist blocs. For China, a country ruled by a communist party in which one of its key goals is to preserve the regime in power, it has always been ideological. The U.S. has now begun to realise this aspect about China. The Republican Party has ideological worldviews and standards, too. If President Trump gets re-elected, the ideological conflicts of the U.S.-China rivalry could become further solidified and the disputes only exacerbated.

Shruti Chaudhary is a 3rd year law student pursuing a B.A/LL.B. (Hons.) at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National law University in Lucknow, India.


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