Growing US-China tensions may prompt Cold War-like collision
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The global political arena is witnessing conditions that closely resemble the Cold War. However, this time around, tensions are arising between two rivals that possess the largest and second-largest economies in the world, namely the US — the leader of the formerly unipolar world — and China, which is rising fast and has the necessary resources to challenge the US.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week ruled out the possibility of a “Cold War” between the two major powers, ignoring a December 2017 US government report that suggested China is a global competitor wanting to counter US influence and its interests. The report also accused Beijing of attempting to ally with the Russians to undermine US national security. This report was condemned by China, which described it as US Cold War paranoia aimed at keeping intact its global hegemony.
The US-Chinese trade war has escalated, recalling the Russo-American Cold War, with Beijing responding to Trump’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports by imposing reciprocal tariffs on US imports. In retaliation, the US refused to grant entry visas to some Chinese scientists. Meanwhile, China confronted two US warships after they strayed 12 nautical miles into Chinese territorial waters near the Paracel Islands. In October, US Vice President Mike Pence accused China of attempting to meddle in the US midterm elections.
Despite questioning China’s ability to play a bigger role in global affairs, and underrating its chances to be a global power, the US is clearly wary of its rival’s growing clout. The US is closely following tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, with the leaders of China and India allying themselves with one another’s foes in a power struggle for regional dominance.
If we suppose that a US-Chinese Cold War and its indications are accurate, the global order will see a sharp polarization between the major and minor powers, as was the case during the Russo-American Cold War. This state of affairs throws up a number of questions, primarily what are the events and who are the leading players in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that are likely to influence the behavior of the two protagonists in this new Cold War?
Despite questioning China’s ability to play a bigger role in global affairs, the US is clearly wary of its rival's growing clout
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulaimi
Also, will the primary players maintain their traditional alliances with the US, given the current dissatisfaction felt by many at US policies toward them and at Washington’s support for certain countries and organizations in the region, as well as in relation to other sensitive issues that require decisive US action to bring about a resolution? This may lead Washington to reconsider its policies and what it can offer its traditional allies, who have the greatest clout in the region to safeguard its alliances in the face of China’s growing power. Unlike the situation in a unipolar world, a bipolar or multipolar global order always gives the major and minor powers greater room for maneuver.
Another question raised by this geopolitical turbulence is precisely what are the US’ options for countering a rising China? The government in Beijing now presides over the second-largest economy in the world, having established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose funds are colossal, making it a rival to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. China is also attentive to the varying needs of the global market, tailoring its manufacturing and services to the needs of each country’s economy and seeking to control the most substantial portion of global trade with its One Belt One Road megaproject to revive its historic overland and maritime Silk Road.
We can clearly see that Beijing’s current foreign policy is based on global expansionism and a regional policy of maintaining positive neighborly relations. In light of this strategic policy direction, China has sought to extend its relations with Asian, African, European and Arab countries on wholly pragmatic grounds. For example, if we look at Chinese-African ties, we find that Beijing has offered financial packages and incentives to several countries.
At the last meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September, the Chinese leadership announced that it would be offering $60 billion in funding to African nations. Beijing also provides the continent with hundreds of medical teams in a policy of “health diplomacy,” while Chinese engineers, technicians and others have created what could be called modern “Chinatowns” in many cities across the continent.
China’s strategy, based on peaceful expansionism and soft diplomacy, is likely to contribute to promoting Chinese values globally. This could lead to a gradual, slow-paced acceptance of China’s growing global role, even if this is related to how much Beijing might spend to attain its objectives and to the effectiveness or otherwise of US policy to encircle China. All of these factors will help to bolster China’s efforts to turn the unipolar global order into a bipolar one, ultimately leading to the US being stripped of its status as the leader of the global order, as well as its unilateral hegemony. It will also allow for the emergence of other powers with greater influence and ability to compete on the global stage.
In conclusion, the mounting US-Chinese tensions foreshadow a cutthroat collision between the two world powers; one long-dominant and facing new challenges and the other rising due to its material and non-material resources. The world is witnessing a radical reshaping of alliances across nations and continents. Some countries see their power declining, while the influence and authority of others continue to grow. The populist wave that has swept the far-right to power in many Western nations may also contribute in one way or another to pushing the world’s countries, especially those in the East, to turn to China, though this will require a long period of change and tremendous effort from them.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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