By Prateek Yadav
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.Mahatma Gandhi
As we reach the midway of 2020, the year is giving no respite from its wrathful events. From pandemic, earthquakes, cyclones to the worst locust attacks, the largest human lockdown, economic recession and unemployment, we are seeing our world change in front of us. With no respite from the pandemic yet, an event which has the potential to change our world forever is unveiling itself. Apart from the pandemic, the year 2020 will also be remembered as the year of the beginning of a new Cold War.
Many scholars had predicted a new Cold War right since the 2000s. The pandemic is seeming to have become the flashpoint for its start. The hostility between the United States and China has risen to a level hardly seen before. The diplomats of both countries have now started openly acknowledging the hostility.
In this article, let’s see the build-up to this situation, what is kept for us in the future and how the 70 years old independent India may react to the changing geopolitics of the world!
It all started in the 1970s when US President Nixon decided to recognize PRC (People’s Republic of China) and establish diplomatic ties with it, in a bid to strengthen the US hegemony over its then arch-rival, the USSR. The United States had compromised its resolve for strengthening democratic ideals across the world by establishing diplomatic ties with the communist PRC and reducing the relationship with democratic ROC (Republic of China) to an ‘’unofficial’ one!
This allowed the PRC to slowly gain legitimacy in the world order. The PRC was now gradually becoming the ‘legitimate China’ we see today, pushing ROC (present-day Taiwan) to the status of an ‘illegitimate one’. Opening up its economy in 1979, China grew rapidly. With the largest population in the world, it had a large working force and cheap labour, which attracted companies from all across the world to establish their manufacturing plants in a business-friendly China.
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In the second half of the 20th century, China experienced an Industrial Revolution of a scale never seen before. Having an authoritarian political system, instances like the Tiananmen Protests Suppression of 1989 led to downfall in the relations of China with the US, but a rising China could hardly be ignored by the world. Its rising share in the global trade made it an important player in the world stadium.
Assured by the then Chinese President Hu Jintao about the ‘peaceful rise’ of China, the US didn’t comprehend it as a threat to the authority it enjoyed in the world. With the Obama administration following a ‘Pivot to Asia’ foreign policy and the subsequent intervention in Asian politics, the hostility between the two nations started rising. China, already being capable of becoming a regional power in the East and South Asia, started seeing the US as a threat to its hegemony in the region.
The Trump administration has been hostile to China ever since it came to power. Accusing China of violating the global trade rules under the WTO regime, the United States started imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. The shift of the manufacturing sector to China had led to a loss of about 5 million jobs in the United States by 2018. This led to the United States restricting its economy against the free trade principle. Since then, the trade war has ensued between the two largest economies of the world, gradually slowing down the global economy before the pandemic dealt a huge blow.
Given by A.F.K. Organski, the Power Transition Theory says that when the upward trajectory of a rising power tends to intersect the downward trajectory of a declining power, aggression and wars are inevitable. Physical war is highly unlikely between the two powers due to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the same doctrine which kept the First Cold War ‘cold’.
But other forms of war, like the economic wars, strategic wars, proxy wars etc. may happen as China attempts to replace the US as the new global power. The COVID-19 pandemic has become the flashpoint as both countries blame each other for the devastation caused by the virus across the world.
Further, the governments of both countries are gradually losing their legitimacy. With the failure of the US government to handle the pandemic, rising unemployment, the worst economic recession since the 1930s and other internal reasons, the Trump administration is gradually losing its support. Also, due to the draconian lockdown measures, brutal suppression of Hong Kong protests of 2019, economic slowdown, the declining image of China in the world and the shrinking manufacturing sector, Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ is not going to be achieved anytime soon.
This has led to a legitimacy crisis for Xi Jinping at the largest scale ever seen in Xi’s China. As warned by Xi, the Tacitus Trap now looks real. To avoid falling into the trap, both the countries are playing the nationalist card to regain their lost legitimacy. This has led to both the countries becoming more truculent. Both, positioning themselves against each other, may consolidate their internal politics, but may begin a new era of global politics.
The United States rhetoric of ‘Chinese Virus’ has gained reasonable traction in the global arena. But, the attempt of China to begin the new rhetoric of the virus having a US-origin, instead of defending itself, shows that it has the capability of creating a new global narrative. Now, China is no more a minor power. It holds an important position in the global supply chain. Being the largest exporter and the second-largest importer, next only to the United States, China has built up its own world of organisations. With organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and strategic projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is shifting the weight towards the east and making itself more formidable than ever before.
The 21st century has seen a more assertive China. Rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s judgement regarding the South China Sea, China has signalled the globe to avoid messing with it. The recent law suppressing the autonomy of Hong Kong has not gone down well in the West. Both Europe and the US see Hong Kong as the sole flame of the West ideals burning in the east.
The Hong Kong Question has now become similar to the long-drawn Taiwan question. Both of them are a major bone of contention between the West and China, not just because of their political status, but also because they are increasingly being dominated by a Communist China, despite ideologically representing the capitalist West. This ideological fight is further feeding the fire of the Second Cold War.
Nonetheless, the Corona Crisis has touched the burns of the past, making the ‘China question’ one of the central themes of the 2020 US Presidential elections. Mr. Trump’s recent use of force in suppressing George Floyd protests has given a major setback to his approval ratings. With less than six months left for the presidential elections, the incumbent would try to direct the narrative once again towards his turf – the ‘China question’.
Although it may be easy for both Xi and Trump to circumvent the Tacitus Trap, the subsequent falling into the Thucydides Trap seems inevitable. The ‘foreign hand’ in the upcoming US elections would decide which way the Cold War takes a turn.
Impact on India
Unlike the previous cold war, this one will test the diplomatic capabilities of India, whose aim remains to safeguard its own interests. The 21st century India is not the same as the newly decolonized India of 1947. It has become a major player in the world economy and politics. The 3rd largest economy, only next to the two opponents of the Second Cold War (in terms of GDP (PPP)), India has to devise its own diplomatic approach to handle this new event in global politics. The ongoing Indo-China standoff in Ladakh and Sikkim should not be viewed in isolation.
It is China’s way of exerting pressure on India, which is going to take major roles in various international organisations for the next few years. Realising the importance of India’s role as Chairman of World Health Assembly (WHA), host of 2022 G20 summit and as a UNSC non-permanent member for the next two years, China can’t afford to have a powerful US ally sitting just next to itself.
The recent resolution pushed by Canberra in the WHO to probe into the COVID-19 crisis calling for an ‘impartial, independent and comprehensive’ evaluation of the international response to the pandemic has not gone down well in China. The openness which the resolution aims at is against the Chinese policies and practices. Gaining support day by day, the resolution, if approved, may become a major loss of face for China. With India also supporting the resolution, China has no other way than to convince or, rather, pressurize the new Chairman of WHA to stop supporting the resolution. Getting the resolution passed will be one of the first wins of the West against its new-found rival.
These reasons have led the US to offer India the membership of the proposed G11. The proposed bloc is a group of the most powerful and important nations of the world. Excluding China from the group signals that Cold War politics has already begun.
The greatest need of the contemporary international system is an agreed concept of order.Henry A Kissinger
This time Delhi seems to be closer to Washington. But it should carefully tread a path which secures its own interests instead of finding itself amidst the bloc politics. Both China and the US are the two largest trading partners of India. With the prevailing economic entanglement with China, it would not be prudent enough to decouple ourselves from China at a time when we are entering a period of demographic dividend. It will slow down our booming economy and we may fall into the Middle-Income Trap at the end of this 40-year long dividend period.
Strategically, with both China and Pakistan coming closer to each other, the US will be a natural option for India. Our long-drawn border issues with both China and Pakistan should be seen in tandem with the South China Sea dispute, the Taiwan issue and the newly created Hong Kong issue between China and the US. Historically friendly nations like Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are moving closer to China. With the ‘String of Pearls’ strategic project of Beijing, Delhi is getting trapped in its own home. These all point towards our growing strategic relations with the West. Alliances like the QUAD need to replace the declining alliances like the BRICS.
By pressurizing Beijing over the border disputes without cutting off the economic ties, Delhi should utilise the new Cold War to its own advantage. Time may have come to restart the defunct Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Its objectives seem to become relevant again. Delhi’s diplomacy amidst the huge turmoil in international organisations like WHO and WTO will determine the future of the country home to the largest poverty-stricken population.
Nonetheless, the US and China have highly entangled economies. The situation may not be as bad the first Cold War where the two blocs were completely decoupled. It is also important to note that the recession has already hit the globe. Having a huge work-force, China’s capacity to uplift the global economy out of this recession shouldn’t be underestimated.
A new global order accommodating both the powers is the only way to prevent ‘Chimerica’ from becoming as chimeric as it sounds!
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About the author
Prateek Yadav is pursuing B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kanpur. He is an active member of Students' Opinion Society at IIT Kanpur and interested in the political affairs in general and Indian politics in particular.