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22 Jun, 2020 14:49

China-US tensions are now ideological & a potential conflict could be far more dangerous than Soviet-American Cold War

China-US tensions are now ideological & a potential conflict could be far more dangerous than Soviet-American Cold War

Amid the election race Trump may take risky steps leading to a dangerous military standoff with China in the Asia-Pacific. Ironically, his reelection could be the only chance to avoid a new Cold War or even WWIII.

When future historians write the chronicles of the 21st century, they will probably flag 2020 as a turning point marking the start of a genuine antagonism between the world’s strongest powers, the US and China.

Three developments have converged in 2020. The first is the rapid growth of Chinese economic, technological and military power that is just now beginning to rival America’s power in a number of crucial areas. The second is the coronavirus pandemic that has aggravated the already fraught US-China relations. The third is the US presidential election campaign, in which China figures as a major issue and which could push the incumbent US president to take risky steps leading to a dangerous military standoff with China in the Asia-Pacific. A still bigger issue is, who will be elected US president come November since this could define the long-term trajectory of US-China relations.

US-China conflict could prove even more dangerous than the Soviet-American Cold War

It has become commonplace to compare the escalating Sino-American rivalry with the Soviet-American Cold War. But some authoritative analysts are now warning that a new Cold War could actually become even more dangerous than the original one. 

Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University, believes “China-US ties today may be even worse than the Soviet-US relationship.” 

Despite a few sporadic moments like the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Wang argues, Moscow-Washington relations remained essentially stable for more than four decades. America and the USSR were separate from each other politically, economically, and socially and were actually unable to influence each other’s domestic affairs. “In contrast, the China-US relationship is now suffering from forceful disengagement after steady progress in engaging each other for four decades. The sentimental and material losses caused by the heated quarrels and grudging decoupling between the two sides…are…more distressing than the analogy of the Cold War.” 

The China-US case vividly demonstrates that globalization and the associated rise of interdependence that have long been advertised as forces for international peace are a double-edged sword and can just as easily poison relations between nations. 

Kenneth Waltz, one of the greatest theorists of international relations, writing back in 1970, sagaciously noted that “close interdependence means closeness of contact and raises the prospect of at least occasional conflict…Interdependent states whose relations remain unregulated must experience conflict and will occasionally fall into violence.” The US and China both have reaped enormous material benefits from forming Chimerica. It looks like payback time is now coming upon them.

Professor Avery Goldstein of the University of Pennsylvania argues that “a twenty-first century relationship between the United States and China shares unfortunate similarities with the decades-long era of US–Soviet antagonism,” but also“introduces some new, unsettling risks.” 

One particular risk Goldstein highlights is that the main theater for US–Soviet rivalry was the middle of the European continent whereas the focus of Sino-American geostrategic competition lies in the waters of the western Pacific Ocean. Unlike the Cold War,  where the vital interests of the United States and the Soviet Union in Europe were well delineated, in the Western Pacific the exact geographic extent of American and Chinese vital interests remains unclear. It makes it harder to be sure about each side’s red lines. 

Moreover, even when US and Chinese forces in the Western Pacific are not directly challenging one another, they patrol, maneuver, and exercise in areas where units from both sides are present. Goldstein is concerned that operational intermingling increases the risk of incidents that can become crises with the potential to escalate to a larger military conflict.

US-China military incidents have already happened in the South China Sea. As the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate such encounters will only grow more dangerous. The US election season creates additional risks. Wang Jisi is worried that in the next four months until November 3 the White House may “create a few incidents in China relations in order to show its determination in deterring China,” which could“escalate into a deadly clash.” I have heard similar concerns from other Chinese experts.

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Why China would vote Trump

If Beijing got to vote in the US presidential election, who would it prefer – Donald Trump or Joe Biden? Despite all his nastiness and impulsiveness, for China, Trump is easier to deal with. As one Chinese recently suggested to me: “Trump is better because he is more eager for economic deals.” 

This might well be true. Trump is about money rather than pure power. Money, by its very nature, is relatively easy to share and divide whereas power, in international politics, is much harder to share and compromise on. Trump’s priority is America’s wealth. He is much less concerned about keeping America as the world’s hegemonic power. His “America First” principle emphasizes the US as a sovereign and prosperous nation-state rather than a global quasi-empire which it has been since the end of World War II.

China wants its share of global political power. Trump, if he stays in the White House for another term, may be willing to accommodate Beijing’s drive for geopolitical influence and prestige in exchange for a more profitable economic relationship with Beijing. In other words, Trump is ready for a grand bargain with China that would seek to increase America’s wealth, even at the expense of America’s predominance in world politics.

In contrast to Trump’s pecuniary approach, Biden's foreign policy philosophy is about power. If elected, he will continue Washington’s established bipartisan strategy of maintaining US global hegemony, which almost inevitably means a clash with China. After all, it was the Obama administration, where Biden served as vice president, which launched “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific in order to counter the expanding Chinese influence. It is telling that Biden’s foreign policy advisers, such as  Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security, are China hard-liners. Biden is also expected to restore and strengthen the network of American alliances badly battered by Trump. Beijing fears, for good reason, the revitalized alliances will then be used to isolate and pressure China

When it comes to foreign policy and China in particular, Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are essentially on the same page as their counterparts in the Republican Party. If there are any differences, they are mainly of style, not of substance. Potential Republican presidential contenders, such as Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton or Marco Rubio, are all extremely hawkish on China. In this regard, Trump is an outsider in his own party.

Clash of ideologies?

It is often said that, unlike the Soviet-American antagonism, the US-China tensions are not ideological. This might have been true just a few years ago, but there are signs that ideological competition is making a rapid comeback. China’s formidable party-state under Xi Jinping is seen by many as an existential neo-totalitarian challenge to the US and the West. This is ominous since, historically, it is conflicts over universal ideas and values – ideology writ large – that tend to be the most vicious. Unlike most other figures in the US political class, Trump is decidedly non-ideological. His ideology is the absence of one, which is, incidentally, one explanation for his affinity with Vladimir Putin of Russia, another non-ideological world leader.

Ironically, the re-election of Trump in November 2020 could be about the only chance to avoid a new Cold War – perhaps even World War III – in an emerging world of US-China bipolarity.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.