On the Brink of a New Cold War
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
In June last year, prime minister Boris Johnson had floated the proposal to constitute a democracy 10 (D10) group for addressing challenges arising out of 5G mobile communication and vulnerable supply chain. In the same month, former American president Donald Trump mooted the idea of expanding the G7 group labeling it an outdated organization not truly representing the geopolitics of the day. In continuance of this bloc-politics, foreign ministers of the QUAD group met in Tokyo to discuss post
COVID-19 international order but with a renewed vigor this time around. One will hardly deny the fact that India’s decision to invite Australia, two weeks after this meeting, in a high-level Malabar naval exercise (a major nuisance for China) was not influenced by QUAD. The White House also gave full support to prime minister Scott Morrison who, from the very beginning, vociferously demanded an independent probe in finding the origin of the novel coronavirus. And there were many similar events in the previous year. What is discernible from all these instances is that all such attempts of world leaders were tacitly targeted against China and that Washington is desperately looking for support from its allies to contain the growing assertiveness of Beijing. This explains the reinvigoration of the traditional alliance-building approach of the US.
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Fishing in Troubled Waters
While the entire world was preoccupied with battling the virus, Beijing having recovered earlier, started pursuing an expansionist design. It showed no sign of self-restraint and started flexing its muscles. It took the misfortunes created by the covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to intimidate its neighbors particularly in South and South-East Asia.
Moreover, leaving behind its age-old salami-slicing tactics to grab neighbor’s land, the Chinese PLA, in May 2020, made a deep incursion inside Indian territory in eastern Ladakh and attempted to unilaterally change the status quo that ultimately culminated in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of PLAs. Though China is known for its unscrupulous claims, it was shocking to listen during a virtual meeting of the global environment facility (GEF) that Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in the Eastern part of Bhutan is a disputed territory between China and Bhutan since Beijing had never claimed this before. It has become a very usual thing for the Chinese patrolling vessels to intimidate or drown fishing boats and ships of other countries in the South China sea. In pursuance of this aggressive behavior, a Chinese vessel, during April last year, sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, with eight fishermen on board, that was fishing near the disputed Paracel Islands. Countries in the Indo-pacific region particularly Japan, India, and Australia are concerned with the rising militarization of the larger Indian Ocean region where freedom of navigation has become a pressing issue. Japan’s defense white paper released in 2020 claimed that “China has relentlessly continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea around Senkaku islands”. The Asian ‘supergiant’ has used its supply chain as a bargaining chip to submit countries around the globe towards its One-China-policy. Thus, its autocratic behavior towards Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong-Kong remain unchallenged except for some sporadic ceremonial rhetoric by the US and West-European countries.
Therefore the repeated endeavor of Chinese fighter planes to enter Taiwanese air space does not remain unheard of and the more recent threat that Taiwan’s independence would mean inviting war with China does not invite backlash from any country. All these appeasement policies have only served to embolden Beijing which is exemplified in the new wolf-warrior diplomacy wherein China has been continuously adopting an aggressive posture in dealing with other countries. President XI Jinping said, during a visit to Nepal last year, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushing bodies and shattered bones’’.
Prerequisites for Hegemony
What do the above instances point out? These events are reflective of Chinese vindication of its military power. Beijing is trying to convey that it can effectively challenge the hard power hegemony of Washington. China can balance the US militarily considering its growing strategic convergence with Moscow on the one hand while Russia’s growing skepticism towards India and its attempt to liquidate permanent enmity with Pakistan on the other. But the Asian giant seems to have rightly recognized that what is equally important to establish dominance at international order is structural and cultural preponderance. The US may be the first largest economy in the world but China was just $5.59 trillion short of it in 2020. Further, it is estimated that by 2028 Beijing would surpass Washington to become the largest economy in the world not only in purchasing power parity(PPP) but also in nominal terms. Asian infrastructure investment bank(AIIB) is dominated by China with 297,804 shares (30.77% of total) and $29.8 billion (26.58%) capital subscriptions as of Jan 2021. BRICS’ New development bank is headquartered in Shanghai which gives Beijing an added stake. Above all, China's ambitious one belt one road initiative (BRI) is nothing short of a neocolonial strategy. Its massive investment in Asian and African countries has allowed it to influence their foreign policies to some extent. Integration of the world economy to its resilient supply chain was eye-opening during the pandemic which has the power to give economic shocks even to developed countries like Japan, Germany, and the US. On top of that, Huawei’s dominance in 5G communication technology is unrivaled since its sale of cheap telecom equipment is without any viable alternatives. Given such overarching structural influence of China at the international level one can accept, at least reluctantly, that it has the requisite economic and technical power to confront US structural clout.
During the cold war period (1945-91) USSR was strong enough to counterbalance any advancements made by the US in the military sphere but where it failed to keep itself abreast with the US was in the technical and cultural domain. Soviet Union's disdain for individual liberty indirectly led to the manufacturing of consent in favor of liberal democracy and Capitalism that in turn led to the uprising of its own people against Socialism. The US was able to engineer a generational divide in the USSR by employing cultural resources. The disintegration of the USSR should be a learning lesson for China. Beijing should keep in mind that it’s the capacity to persuade rather than coerce that will lead to the fabrication of consent in its favor. It shall have to accept the fact that great countries almost invariably wither from within. Chinese communist party’s suppression of its citizens in general and Uighur Muslims, in particular, would prove to be a lethal factor for itself. In its strive to cover-up the naked suppression of ethnic minorities by the PLAs, National Radio and Television administration of China has recently decided to Ban the BBC world news from airing in mainland China for the BBC “seriously violated” its regulatory provision by reporting on the alleged systematic rape, sexual abuse and forced labour on the part of Chinese military in Xinjiang province of China. Beijing’s attempt to cover-up the persecution of Uighur minorities by banning a foreign media channel has backfired against it as the issue, once again, has come into limelight. Nonetheless, it's a shameless attempt on the part of Beijing to suppress dissent. China-UK bilateral relations would only deteriorate after this episode. Britain would definitely try to engage with other european and North-American countries to build pressure on Beijing. The Issue would have great repercussions for the Dragon as human right violation in China has always been an important bargaining factor in its trade and investment negotiations with the western-bloc. Not just these “trivial” Chinese citizens who are on the radar but the big entrepreneurs of Beijing have also been the prey of CCP’s wrath. In the era of globalisation, when the elected governments often try to woo the capitalists, China's authoritarian culture shows no room for deference towards the big billionaires. By canceling the IPO of the Ant group, that too in the last minutes, Chinese regulators sent a frantic message across the businesses that no criticism of the government would be tolerated and that the CCP is the final and supreme authority in Beijing.These instances show that the curtailing free speech and curbing dissent has become part and parcel of the Chinese lives. Such oppressive regimes would hardly be liked by any member of the civilised community. So, unlike the US, China does not provide a model to be replicated. Public discourse around the world shows that the Dragon has not been able to persuade the people or the nations around the world in its own favour. The level of distrust between China and its neighbour is unprecedented. Thus, It lacks soft power wherein it shall have to invest heavily to balance the cultural and ideological supremacy of the US.
Image Credits: Cagle Cartoons
Erosion of Soft Power of US
China also seems to be wary of its precarious position in soft power diplomacy and therefore Beijing tried its best to save Nepal communist party(NCP) from split which was visible during the Chinese envoy’s meddling in the internal feud of the party. Unfortunately, it could not save KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal led party from the split. NCP was very important for China to use it rhetorically that it’s the largest communist party in
South Asia. The Distribution of masks, PPE kits, and corona testing kits by Beijing to other countries during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was aimed at earning goodwill for itself. Its massive investment in African and Asian countries generates a sense of bonhomie for it. China’s conspiracy theory regarding the origin of coronavirus that the US military might have brought it in China during their visit was aimed at portraying an image of the infallible nature of CCP’s governance. While these efforts of Beijing should have awakened Washington, what the US did during the presidency of Donald Trump was like cutting its own throat. The US forgot that what it was assaulting under Donald Trump had made it a global leader. Disregarding multilateralism, He resorted to unilateralism, preached protectionism, and took a stand against globalization- unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA and imposing of sanctions against Iran, tariff war against China, revoking India’s special status under GSP, and many other dramatic steps- that in consequence offended its allies particularly EU and NATO countries. He repeatedly targeted his NATO allies alleging that the US was overpaying its military contributions while European countries were delinquent in paying their fair share. What remained latent in all those steps was Washington’s abdication of its role as a global leader which became more apparent when the white house pulled itself from the Paris climate deal, UNHRC, UNESCO, and more recently WHO. Perhaps these steps were not enough to malign the American image when on Jan 06, 2021, Mr. Trump incited a mob to storm the capitol buildings in the US. The temple of democracy was abused vehemently by those pro-Trump goons that day. This event would have unintended consequences for liberal democracy particularly authoritarian countries like China could use it to justify its suppressive governance.
Image Credits: Cagle Cartoons
The way former president Donald trump had engaged with European powers was disillusioning. His presidentship style, Trumpism, was the main factor that antagonized the European countries. The fallout of which was the recently concluded China-European Union bilateral investment deal. Germany’s decision to continue the Nord-Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia shows the diverging interest of Berlin vis-a`-vis Washington. Thus, it comes out that Washington’s way of engaging with countries around the globe would have a deep bearing on how its European partners would relate to the Dragon, Kremlin and other America’s adversaries. So, if the US has to keep China on the bay it shall necessarily have to amend its foreign policies. Beijing seems to have adequately prepared itself to thwart any military or structural manoeuvre of the US but it certainly could not compete with the US in the soft power domain. This factor should be kept in mind and must be leveraged by the new POTUS. Fortunately, President Biden has assumed charge in a peaceful transition of power. His prompt decision to join the Paris climate deal, WHO and other multilateral organisations has shown his democratic and responsible approach. Though a radical departure from Mr. Trump’s approach towards Iran would be difficult, Mr. Biden should try to find a judicious solution to the Iran nuclear deal because a seemingly China-Russia-Iran trilateral axis is trying to intrude in the Middle-East and it can seriously endanger the balance of power in the region. In addition to that, G7 requires a complete overhaul as it could not remain just an annual congregation to fight peacefully. Quad shall have to transcend beyond the issues of Indo-Pacific and maritime security to include economic, technical and cultural cooperation. Above all, White House should always keep in mind that it could not afford to compensate for any Chinese lack whatsoever by harming its own reputation.
By Arnav Anand Gupta (Guest Writer)
Pol. Sci. (Hons) first year
Arnav likes to ponder upon the current developments in international-relations and try to keep a close tab on the recent events of geopolitical significance.