Examining the Psyche of the New Cold War- The US-China Quandary in the Contemporary Times

Updated: Oct 6

Guest Article

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The ‘developed’ West has somewhere lost its bet to the overarching Chinese calculus and that the world might be witnessing a “New Cold War."

From the end of World War II to the year 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) emerged as two universalistic power hegemons. Their rivalry drew what Winston Churchill famously referred to as the Iron Curtain, separating the West, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, from the East, which included the Soviet Union and its allies. Tracing the trails of time, the end of the Cold War altered global architecture in profound ways. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States assumed an unrivalled hegemony. However, with the concurrent American devaluation of its own political and economic prestige, as well as a soft power downturn, a niche in the global order was created for players who had previously been on the periphery of shaping the political landscape. And thus, Napoleon's age-old prediction of China waking up from its slumber and astonishing the world proved to be prophetically accurate.

China ascended to prominence and its rise was a result of a variety of factors, including restructured production strategies, economic reforms, soft-power tactics, and so on. In this day and age, China is in full swing to be called a world superpower. So much so that scholars have ascertained that the ‘developed’ West has lost its bet of power to overarching Chinese calculus and that the world might be witnessing "The New Cold War."

Although the manifestations of this ‘New Cold War’ would differ from the Cold War due to different contestations and interests, aspects such as exacerbating political diatribes and sharpening ideological differentiation still remain conflictual areas of intersection. As Mearsheimer, a Political Science Professor at the University of Chicago points out, the United States and China have already locked horns on the global stage, indulging in an ‘extra-perilous conflict’.

Finally, with Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House of Representatives USA) taking the Taiwanese high road in the game of power prerogatives and playing the hawkish strategic game of poke and nudge with China against this background, what remains to be seen is how quickly the aforementioned war escalates from a cold to a possibly hot/full-fledged one.

Given the volatile status quo in which the world is witnessing life-altering conflicts, there is no better time than now to address the issue of a new cold war and investigate its new or, more accurately, reimagined dimensions.

Rise of China, A Dent to US Imperialism - Tracing a Geopolitical Trail

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China's approach to diplomacy changed dramatically. Xi did not adopt a traditional approach like his counterparts, as he went on to transition China's Foreign Affairs, referring to it as a visionary 'Chinese Dream' to rightfully

claim and reclaim China's space in the world order. Unlike his forebears, he did not believe it was way off the mark to engage in territorial conflicts and expansionist agendas with its neighbours. Scholars observe that Xi transformed China's economic and resource prowess into a strong geopolitical muscle. To cite one quick example of this potent geopolitical complement is the $1 trillion worth of the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project (2013), which resulted in Beijing exporting its industrial overcapacity to build overland and maritime transit routes throughout Eurasia and parts of Africa. Additionally, like other imperialist powers that have thrived in the past, China expansively financed all of its development projects through loans to the countries of the Global South.

Image Credits: Los Angeles Times

All these developments have been ubiquitously viewed as a direct challenge to US power and indicated that China had no commitment towards becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the set of high-held political frameworks of a liberal, democratic order. Economic historian Niall Ferguson says, and I quote “the Cold War II began in 2019 when the trade conflict rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.” Indeed the Dragon has tried immensely to indulge in asymmetric warfare by ramping up not just its military capabilities, R&D Budget, and technology, i.e. the hard power so to say, but also the soft power tendencies.

Dynamics of Diplomacy and Party Politics

The ambitious nature of China has further led to a paradigm shift and wrestle in USA’s foreign policy. Initially, American policy towards China had been a blend of containment and engagement, or what analysts refer to as "congagement." In principle, the congagement methodology implied that the United States would attempt to incorporate China and put pressure on it to abandon its state-capitalist economic organisation in favour of free-market capitalism. However, at the same time, it remained vigilant due to Beijing's unwillingness to implement these directives fully. Thus, the US alternated between emphasising the two poles of the "congagement" policy.

Obama being the last proponent of this policy with his so-called Pivot to Asia, decisively shifted the US towards containment. He aimed to free the United States from its Middle Eastern occupations and reorient US imperialism towards projecting power in the Asia-Pacific region. Further, he wanted to integrate Asia into the Western neoliberal order, but he failed because the US remained heavily involved in the Middle East, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement was never ratified. As a result, US imperial strategy floundered in the face of China's new assertiveness.

Image Credits: The Economic Times

His Republican successor, Donald Trump, tried different strategies to tackle the US-China power jostle but they proved to be more or less erratic. Throughout his tenure, he attempted to batter down China with a Trade-war, encouraged more US-based multinationals to come up in the market, pushed for sanctions, and expanded Naval bases in the Indo-Pacific. Next in the fray is Joe Biden whose foreign policies differ from his predecessors in the sense that his policies seem to be far more focussed on geopolitics and military strategies. His intentions of bolstering QUAD, renegotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and introducing the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) to counter Chinese influence in Asia, further serve as a testament to the same.

‘The Chinese Virus’ and the heightened US-China Collision- A War of Narratives

While the world was witnessing a potential tragedy and battling an alleged biological warfare in 2019 and 2020, the already tense US-China relations got exacerbated vigorously. During the crisis, both the states banked on a hyper-nationalistic fervour to shore up domestic support for escalating conflict over geopolitics, economics, and military dominance. Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed, ‘Wartime President’ and his ‘able’ administrators repeatedly dubbed COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus" or "The Wuhan virus," and fueled conspiracy theories about it being leaked from a research laboratory. His administration even allowed the states in the US to sue China for compensation despite China's sovereign immunity. The Anti-Communism sentiment in America was not limited to the right-wing, as the Democrats enthusiastically joined the Republicans in their anti-China campaign. Besides that, the Left went all out in condemning China, using foreign rivalry to advance their domestic agenda of progressivism, which supported an ambitious strategy of investment, innovation, social inclusion, and national renewal. Beijing, on the other hand, acted swiftly, denying the 'allegations' that the COVID-19 virus was bioengineered and claiming that the US has been inventing theories unnecessarily because it is afraid of China's growth and influence.

This war of narratives, which has involved the shifting of blames and burdens between the US and China, has only heightened tensions, eroded the nascent global recovery, and accelerated the decoupling momentum in almost all potential areas.

Fanning the Fiery Flames of the New Cold War in the Status Quo

In his address to Georgetown University last month, Secretary of State USA Antony Blinken underscored their long-established stance of "strategic ambiguity." This long-winded speech was delivered in defence of Joe Biden's joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, wherein he hinted that the US will engage China militarily if Taiwan is attacked, which reflected an altered stance of ‘strategic clarity.' However, with Pelosi's recent move of disregarding the 'One China Policy' and thus attracting the Fight response from Beijing, the claimants of scholars who understood and classed the 'New Cold War' as a trap, a fallacy, or a media-managed myth have been shot down in thin air. Embargoes, sanctions, and military conflicts induced by sharp diplomatic overtures can escalate tensions leading to a New Cold War or eventually a Hot War. In no time bipolarity and the balance of power can give way to a divisive world punctuated with crises, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea being the key areas of contention. The West seems to have realised that it has got China wrong and thus the Cold War analogy, which serves more as a reality in the status quo, has succeeded in getting China right.


By Sanjana Prithyani (Guest Writer)

Sanjana Prithyani [she/her] is a final year student of Political Science at the Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest include International Relations, Public Diplomacy, and Public Policy among other social science disciplines. Having interned with the Ministry of Education Government of NCT of Delhi, and the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam amongst other national and international research-based think tanks she aspires to make a career in Public Policy.



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