Relations between two of the world’s superpowers have fallen to their lowest level in decades.
The United States has criticised China for the treatment of the Uyghurs; lobbied allies to ban various Chinese firm considered a security risk; imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials as a consequence of the crackdown on Hong Kong democracy; and placed limits on work visas for Chinese journalists.
For their part, China has branded U.S. criticism of its Uyghur policy as “baseless” whilst telling Washington to mind their own business about Hong Kong. Beijing has cracked down on journalists from many nations (including Australia) and threatened to put American companies on a list of proscribed foreign entities. Separately, Australian goods have been banned or severely restricted into China and there is little doubt that the underlying reason is Australia’s relationship with the US.
The CCP thinks Washington is bent on containing China to prolong the declining power of the United States whilst denying China its rightful place in the global order. Washington increasingly believes the CCP is threatening US security interests, undermining its prosperity, interfering in its democracy, and challenging its values. One of the few things that unites a divided and partisan America is anti-China sentiment.
Previously, the US-China relationship was overseen by the need to work together on a range of global economic, financial, and geopolitical issues that mandated cooperation. But as China has replaced Russia as the main threat, these co-operative inclinations have almost entirely disappeared and are now complicated by recriminations over the coronavirus pandemic.
Former President Barack Obama habitually underplayed the power of the United States and seemed to accept the myth that China’s ascendancy was pre-ordained. Conversely, President Donald Trump seized the psychological high ground by dominating the media and forcing China onto the defensive. Trump demonstrated that no other country could match the economic, financial, and military power of the US. President Joe Biden was initially aimless – vacillating between his predecessors although he now seems to have grasped the enormity of the situation and the potential threat.
The mounting US-China differences over trade and technology are primarily responsible for the spike in hostilities and while important in themselves, those differences are characteristic of a deeper geo-political divide that lights the cold war fuse.
First, US-China rivalry is between the world’s two most powerful states, one a liberal democracy and the other communist. Second, it is a system-wide contest for supremacy. Third, it is about values as well as power. Fourth, from China’s perspective, they are committed to a multi-decade struggle for global ascendancy. Fifth, both sides would prefer any fight to occur by proxy but neither will step back from a direct confrontation if necessary.
There is, of course, a marked difference between the emerging cold war and the former strategic competition between the US and the USSR. At its best, the GDP of the Soviet Union was only 40 percent of that of the United States’ with little trade between the protagonists. But China’s GDP is already about 65 percent of the US and in stark contrast to the USSR, any geo-strategic contest with China includes trade, investment and technology.
The geographic centre of the new cold war is the Indo-Pacific and as the US and China are both Pacific powers, their rivalry will be felt most intensely in the region where their interests collide and there are several potential triggers for military confrontation such as Taiwan, South (and East) China Sea and Hong Kong.
Multiple Asia-Pacific nations have competing claims on areas within the South and East China Seas, including Japan whose historical enmity towards China is well documented.
Will the cold war become a hot war? The historical record suggests that although a hot war is not inevitable, it is a possibility. Tensions between rising and incumbent powers often precede military conflict or an extended period of confrontation and instability. And if the shooting starts, will it be a limited engagement or something much more destructive?
For the time being we will watch the festering rivalry between the United States and China punctuated by proxy conflicts, especially in cyberspace. Nations in the Asia Pacific will continue to suffer collateral damage and in that sense Australia is a minor victim in a much larger stoush.