Wednesday May 22, 2024

The new cold war (Part – I)

By Nauman Ahmad Bhatti
July 07, 2021

In 1946, Sir Winston Churchill said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” This marked the beginning of the decades-long US-Soviet cold war.

Scholars of the future may almost certainly trace the proclamation of the new cold war in the speech of former US Vice President Mike Pence. In October 2018, the then VPOTUS said, “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the western Pacific... But they will fail... We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.”

Once again, the US is opposing a rising superpower. Once again, a long-lasting rivalry is taking place. This time, however, it is the rise of China that has disturbed the balance of power in the world, enmeshing the US successfully in the Thucydides trap.

The competition initially started as a trade war between the US and China. China has challenged the American dominance in international society. In 2013, Chinese exports surpassed that of America’s. Over the years, their trade competition has led to a series of sanctions, embargoes and imposition of high tariffs, increasing the hostility between the two sides. Since the economic dominance compelled the two powers in the rivalry, therefore the economy will be the leading impetus of the new cold war.

Proponents of liberalism have constantly shunned the ideas of war while emphasizing more on cooperation. Inspired by John Locke, the liberal worldview considers humans as ends rather than means. The same applies to states, as states are not but an aggregate of humans. For liberals, the collaboration in global institutions, legal solution of disputes and disarmament must remain the inherent tenets of world politics. The liberal school of thought is yet again in plight, for the new cold war will crush all three principles – only this time not by a regional conflict, but a global one.

The second cold war poses a threat to world peace. Its long-term consequences are in the pipeline. The EU president has elucidated that China is their “systemic rival” in terms of human rights, and they stand with their “American friends” and “democracies”. The same stance has been affirmed by Nato in a recent summit. This is a formal undertaking of the world’s global divide. The West is still being led by the US. On the other hand, China has its own strategic partners. Russia, undoubtedly, is among the few real strategic allies of China. The Russian alliance comes with a pack of Russian allies as well. Some countries that were part of the US camp in the old cold war now seem to have developed closer ties with China. Pakistan, a nuclear power, is the prime example.

Latin America is surprisingly and increasingly forming close relations with China. Countries like Chile, Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador have developed stronger economic relations with China as opposed to the US which was once their main trade partner. It is a matter of time when the economic relations turn political.

Due to a strong Chinese military presence in the Pacific, the prospects of the US ‘containing’ China are bleak. The eastern allies of the US like Japan, South Korea and Australia are economically involved with China which makes it even harder for the US to form reliable alliances in this region. The states of East and Southeast Asia face a dilemma: politically, they are involved with the US, but their economies are highly under Chinese influence. India is probably facing the biggest pressure. It is by far the biggest US ally in the region; on the other hand, it is reluctant to join hands with the US in confronting China due to economic reasons. In such conflicts, non-alignment has seldom been a choice.

Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, has warned that the Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two powers. If such a thing happens, the two “will begin a course of confrontation that will last [for] decades.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is considered a novel form of colonialism. By the West, it is perceived as a plan to expand Chinese territory. This project will give China the pathway to almost all continents, which is strategically beneficial. China’s claims on the South China Sea are viewed as a means of practising it's hard power. So far, the United States has no alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Access to the South China Sea is of prime importance in this cold war. Both the superpowers are vying for hegemony in the region. It will provide China with a way to move its navy to a wider Pacific and the Indian Ocean. For the Americans, the South China Sea is important to stop the Chinese spread. Many political commentators consider the South China Sea as the starting point of the second cold war.

Due to the threat of mutually assured destruction, there is a minimum possibility of a total war. This is where the missing element of the conflict comes in: proxy warfare. The outright rejection of PRC’s One-China policy by the US and its allies could trigger Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan is a self-proclaimed independent country. Many, including the US, treat it as a sovereign state while not recognizing it officially. But China does not corroborate this status. China could use force against Taiwan and occupy it. Recently, the Chinese defence ministry issued a statement in which it announced that “Taiwan independence means war.” US-Taiwan ties are gradually strengthening. The Chinese government warned the US over this increasing relationship by stating, “Don’t play with fire on Taiwan.”

The Americans have this inclination for meddling in other countries’ affairs in order to supposedly spread humanitarian values. This foreign policy of liberal internationalism the US uses as a cover for its invasion in Iraq and other countries. The US could again use this doctrine in Taiwan if the state of affairs tumbles. The mishandling of Taiwan issue by the two rivals could initiate a proxy war in Taiwan where only the Taiwanese will suffer.

To be continued

The writer is an engineer and a scholar of history and politics. He can be reached at