Why a new US-China ‘Cold War’ is far from inevitable

Why a new US-China ‘Cold War’ is far from inevitable

US President Donald Trump (L) and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The 30th anniversary next month of the fall of the Berlin Wall marks an epochal moment in international relations,  but the initial promise of what is commonly called the 1989 revolutions has now faded.

Indeed, from the vantage point of 2019, it is sometimes necessary to look back and remember the huge wave of optimism that swept the former Eastern Bloc, starting in Poland and Hungary and coming to a head in Berlin. Then came the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the overthrow of the communist dictatorship in Romania in December, and in December 1991 the implosion of the Soviet Union.

This breathtaking period in international relations, after the decades-long Soviet-US bipolar stand-off, gave rise to optimistic expectations of how the post-Cold War world might be.  Yet the vision expressed by some of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has not just been dashed, but replaced by a different reality.

While it is still too early to make definite assessments, 2016 may be seen as one of the turning points in the post-1989 period; Donald Trump was elected US president, and the UK voted to leave the EU.  What was so striking about both these events was that two of the countries previously known for their political stability, traditional rule makers of the international order, made the world a significantly more uncertain place.

However, while 2016 may indeed prove to be a defining year for historians, significant political volatility had been a feature of international politics for some time before. For much of the period since the turn of the millennium, authoritarian states such as Russia have appeared to be in the ascendancy, Islamist terrorism has been a significant concern, and unstable countries such as North Korea have acquired nuclear weapons. So marked has been this disarray that some academics have pointed to 2001, forever remembered for the 9/11 attacks in the US, as being the start of a new “20-year crisis” like the 1919-1939 interwar period.   

The case for this argument lies, in part, in the many challenges confronting the US-led international order, not just the Korean nuclear challenge and international terrorism.  Other geopolitical fault lines are instability in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan; Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Washington’s relations with Moscow being more strained than at any time since the collapse of Soviet communism; and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appearing moribund. 

With Washington now re-examining its international role under Trump, it is the rise of China that is one of the biggest game changers in global affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Andrew Hammond

While much has changed since the end of the Cold War, one constant is that the US remains the most powerful country in the world — certainly in a military sense.  It can still project and deploy overwhelming force relative to any enemy.  

But with Washington now re-examining its international role under Trump, it is the rise of China that is one of the biggest game changers in global affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Mirroring Beijing’s growing economic strength is an increasingly assertive foreign policy and a range of ambitious international initiatives such as the Belt and Road project.    

The rise of China could be a source of growing tension with Washington, or it could develop into a fruitful G2 partnership.  Growing rivalry is increasingly likely if Beijing’s military power continues to grow rapidly and China embraces a more assertive foreign policy stance toward its neighbors in Asia.

However, more cooperation is possible if the two powers can work together on issues such as climate change, and find effective ways to resolve harder power disagreements such as territorial claims in the South China Sea.  In that eveny, we may transition from the postwar multilateral system into a network of loosely coordinated bilateral and regional deals in trade, security and other areas. 

One of the key signs that such a future is on the horizon would be the translation of the interim trade agreement reached by Washington and Beijing this month into a comprehensive, sustainable deal.  If so, the two leaders could avoid the world hurtling toward zero-sum trade relations.  

It is by no means inevitable that the future international system will be defined by a new US-China “Cold War.”  While US relations with China could become a force for greater global tension, they could also evolve into a deeper strategic partnership driving a new era of global growth and stability.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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