A new Cold War?

Is the world on the cusp of another epoch of unending hostility?

A new Cold War?

The rivalry between the United States and China, which appeared to have peaked during President Donald Trump’s term, has reached another level in President Biden’s first year in office. During the G-7 summit held in the United Kingdom last month, President Biden unfolded a US-backed multi-billion dollar Build Back a Better World or B3W plan as a strategic competitor against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Following the G-7 summit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), traditionally a Russia-focused military alliance, for the first time shifted its focus to China, calling it a ‘global security risk’ at its annual summit in Brussels held last month. The final communiqué, signed by leaders of the 30-member alliance, reads that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.

Is this the beginning of a new Cold War? Is the world returning to the past? The US-USSR Cold War was an ideological clash between the capitalist West and the communist Soviet bloc. The current rivalry is more about China’s economic growth as it has not been exporting “its governance system to the world.” “What the West probably sees as worrisome is Beijing’s economic outreach,” writes Mahir Ali (Dawn, June 23).

In June, during his visit to Paris, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to add an ideological component to the US-China rivalry. “France and the US are on the same page on the need to defend the free world as China gains influence,” he said. The alternative, he warned, would be no global order or a Chinese-led world order that would be “profoundly illiberal in nature.”

China’s purpose, according to a senior Chinese diplomat, is economic development. It is not interested in wagging a global battle against any governance system. “China is adhering to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. We never tried to promote our political structure in any other country. China always tries to exert its influence through economic cooperation,” he said. In particular, he said, China had never tried to influence Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Senator Bernie Sanders, in a recent article. Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China, for Foreign Affairs, warned Washington against casting China as an “existential threat” to the US and urged it not to start a new Cold War with China.

“The prevalence of this view will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve,” he wrote. “The growing bipartisan push for a confrontation with China will deflect attention from the shared common interests the two countries have in combating truly existential threats such as climate change, pandemics and the destruction that a nuclear war would bring.”

Washington has its own reasons to be concerned about China. It has lost its influence because of China’s economic outreach. Known as “the world’s factory”, China’s GDP has already surpassed that of the US. In the military field, China’s defence budget, which lags far behind the US defence budget, is expected to exceed the latter by 2035. It is estimated that by 2050 China will emerge as the single most powerful nation in the world both in terms of economic and military strength.

Experts say that the US is willing to go to any length to get China’s progress derailed. “The Cold War 2.0 will make China’s rise costlier. The US, of course, will also have to dedicate more resources on forming a united anti-China front. This will cost people of both countries,” says Prof Hu Shisheng, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. “The US will force other countries, including Pakistan, to choose a side. This division will endanger global economic development. The West, led by the US, should focus more on making a partnership with China than increasing the rift,” he says.

The rivalry between the US and China will have far-reaching implications for the world. Countries like Pakistan will be facing the challenge of finding the centre-ground. This rivalry has been affecting Pakistan’s relations with other regional players. The CPEC, which is BRI’s flagship programme, is under severe US scrutiny. The growing warmth between India and the US in the Indo-Pacific region to curb Chinese influence is a point of concern for Pakistan. It is also impacting Pakistan’s relations with its traditional partners in the Middle East.

“It has notable implications for Pakistan. Islamabad is uniquely situated, geopolitically speaking, in that it is a reluctant ally of the US and at the same time a close ally of China. This means that Islamabad needs to play a balancing game. It will continue to pursue deep ties with Beijing, even while trying to leave enough space for cooperation with Washington,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Programme and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre.

According to Kugelman, Pakistan is not in a position to choose between the two sides, and “I do not expect the US or China to ask it to choose sides. Beijing and Washington both offer different advantages in partnership.” He says China is the tried-and-true partner — the reliable ally that can help Pakistan both at home and on the world stage. “The relationship with the US is more transactional and much shakier, but it does still provide various forms of economic assistance, as well as security cooperation that includes military training and education exchanges. And then there is the prestige factor of enjoying a partnership, modest though it may be, with the world’s superpower.”

Recent developments suggest that there is pressure on Pakistan from the United States and other Western powers to pick a side in their strategic competition with China. In an interview with a Chinese news channel, PM Imran Khan said, “Pakistan thinks that it is very unfair for the US or other Western powers to force countries like us to take sides,” he said. “Why do we have to take sides? We should have a good relationship with everyone.” He added that Pakistan would not downgrade its relations with China under any circumstances.

Historically, Pakistan has maintained relationships with both the US and China based on security, political and economic interests. But those were when there was no compulsion on Pakistan to pick the side between the US and China. The current situation is different, and achieving centre ground will not be easy for Pakistan. “These are testing times for the Pakistani leadership. They must make clear choices,” says security analyst Amir Rana, who heads the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank. “Pakistan will have to make some immediate decisions and clearly choose a side. Otherwise, it will walk a tightrope trying to balance its relations with other players,” says Rana.

According to a senior government official, the US has always been pushy when it comes to bilateral relationships between the two countries. “US wants Pakistan to play a positive role in the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan but on its own terms. We need a cooperation based on mutual interests with the US. Let’s hope the current administration will consider historical relations of both countries and do not push Pakistan into a corner,” he says.

The challenge for all three countries is to navigate the volatile US-Pakistan-China triangle. “How can they find ways to cooperate along it? There are some options — cooperation in helping promote the peace process in Afghanistan, for example. I can also envision other possibilities down the road, such as US-China climate talks facilitated by Pakistan or US private sector contributions to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. There are other broader spaces for cooperation, too - fighting pandemics, piracy and other shared threats. Even cybersecurity could be an area for cooperation,” says Kugelman.

A new Cold War?