US-China Relations: A New Cold War? By Syed M. Saad Zaidi

The renowned political scientist Thucydides stated, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” To date, Thucydides thesis is relevant in global politics as the powerful still define the world’s political affairs. In contemporary times, we see a chicken game being played between the world’s sole hegemon – USA – and the world’s fastest growing economy and dominant power – China- with their tit-for-tat actions.
Warships from both the states are facing-off one another in the disputed South China Sea; increasing the chances of an accidental war. Furthermore; Washington slapped Beijing with 25 percent tariffs on more than 1,300 imports as China was blamed for infringing US intellectual property rights. Resultantly, Beijing too imposed taxes by increasing 25 percent tariffs on 106 American imports. These strategically targeted offensives from both sides have escalated tensions and worsened the relations between the two states to an extent that many political analysts believe that the foundation is being laid for a ‘new cold war’.
Recently, the Trump administration has promulgated the ‘Taiwan Travel Act’. As per this act, visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels are allowed as well as encouraged. Hence; it is in clash with the US commitment to Beijing – in the ‘Joint Communiques’. This tampering with the one-China framework is a recipe for disaster. Recently President XI Jinping emphasised that China “will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China!” Therefore, if the US defies the Joint Communiques, an agreement that every US President since the establishment of US – China diplomatic relations in 1979, including Trump, has endorsed will most definitely lead to hostilities between the two states.
Also, the recent tariff wars between the two super powers is destabilising the global political economy. The world’s sole hegemon – USA – thought that it could easily cow China in a trade dispute. But, China under President Xi Jinping is now exchanging threats of tit-for-tat tariffs. Even after President Trump’s announcement about raising the stakes another $100 billion, China vows to defend itself “at any cost.”
China will most likely retaliate to the American threat by cutting off America’s supply of rare earth metals. In 2014, after a collision between China’s and Japan’s ship, China did cut off exports of rare metals to Japan; this led to the World Trade Organisation spat with America, Japan, and other countries on one side, and China on the other. Hence, if the USA imposes further taxes on the Chinese products then it indeed it will be initiating a trade a war between the two states, such a war that many economists see America losing.
Many political analyst view that the pressing concern of American is that it knows it may soon no longer be the world’s sole superpower. As the gap between US unchallenged hegemony is rapidly diminishing due to the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy, and resurgence of Russia as a regional competitor.
History teaches us one valuable lesson that whenever the supremacy of a hegemon is challenged by a rising power then, in majority of cases, war is inevitable to decide which power will gain ascendancy over the other. Hence, the odds-on hostilities breaking out between China and the US are high.
Although, China to date has pursued a ‘dove’ policy by strengthening their military capabilities proportional to their socio-economic growth; to defend and safeguard China. Thus, China has acted all along its development as a cautious power and has tried to not to openly challenge America’s hegemony, while asserting itself in the region. But there are hawks in the US establishment who consider that if China is not deterred now, it will be too powerful later and harder to contain. Furthermore, Washington’s policy of encircling China by building military bases around China and forming alliances from India to Australia to restrict Beijing has further intensified the already tensed environment in the world political scenario. Therefore, if these hostilities keep building up between the two dominant powers of the twenty-first century then surely it will lead to a hegemonic tussle between the two that many leading political analysts consider to be a ‘new cold war’.
America under Trump’s presidency most definitely seems determined on reigniting old rivalries with China and Russia as he recently harshly criticized the countries on their economic, political and military ideologies. In several recent policy statements, President Trump suggested that the US considers both China and Russia to be major rivals and both these states along with other rogue regimes and terrorist organizations, “challenge US economy, interests and values”. Furthermore, President Trump was of the view that the only way to deter these threats were by “unmatched power”. Therefore, America will continue to increase its power – it be military, economic or political – to ensure its safety and more importantly its status of the worlds sole hegemon.
As America intends to continue to strengthen its power by further developing its military capabilities and increasing its political-diplomatic sphere of influence; therefore, a global arms race and tug of war over power will surely instigate. Henceforth, the idea of the beginning of a ‘new cold war’ is not as vague as liberals consider.
The United States of America is now pursuing a unilateral approach to maintain its hegemonic status in the global political arena. Thus, US is more than often seen flexing its muscles in world affairs, the latest missile attacks on Syria to deter the alleged chemical weapons by the Al-Assad regime is a prime example of USA’s arrogance. At the same time, China is now playing a proactive role in the world affairs, under President Xi Jinping. It is seen even countering US led initiatives, it be via the establishment of Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) to give a parallel economic world order or creating international organizations such as BRICS. Hence, a zero-sum game is in motion i.e. one or the other side will come out of this competition or as many are terming it the ‘new cold war’ victorious while the other will lose its prestige globally.
The writer is a MS/MPhil IR Scholar at Bahria Univesity, Islamabad.

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