After two decades of hoping that China will become a responsible player in the global economy, American politicians have finally concluded that this will not happen.
The decision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to introduce a new Hong Kong security law seems to have been predetermined. Historically, rising powers have always tried to expand their spheres of geopolitical influence as soon as they go through a certain stage of economic development. It was only a matter of time before China abandoned the principle of “one country, two systems” and imposed its laws and norms on Hong Kong – the territory that it considered to be its integral part.
From China’s point of view, the recession in America over the past 12 years – from the financial crisis of 2008 to the presidency of Donald Trump – openly invites him to accelerate strategic expansion. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping has long been assuring the world that the Pacific is large enough to accommodate both China and the United States, its real policies often have suggested otherwise. In addition to the militarization of the South China Sea, the one-belt, one-way initiative he signed is aimed at making China a key point for the entire Eurasian continent.
Now that Xi has decided to achieve complete subjugation to Hong Kong, he will probably also challenge Taiwan’s status quo, believing that Trump’s isolationist, abstract administration will do nothing. But the United States took note of Xi’s aggressiveness. After two decades of hoping that China will become a responsible participant in the global economy, American politicians have finally come to the conclusion that this will not happen. Since the CCP’s decision in March 2018 to abolish the presidential term, the U.S. Foreign Office has abandoned any expectations of a regulatory rapprochement between China Xi and the West.
Meanwhile, since Trump’s trade war has already begun a new, even more antagonistic phase in Sino-US relations, the COVID-19 pandemic has given an additional impetus to the US’s more confrontational policy toward China. Thus, a strategic consensus has developed in Asia, according to which this region will become the central “battlefield” of a new, already begun, cold war.
To understand the nature of the coming conflict, Asian leaders – along with the rest of the world – must focus on three different but interrelated areas of Sino-US rivalry: military-political, economic and ideological.
At the military-political level, the key question is whether China will seek to expel the United States from Asia, thus becoming the unquestioned hegemon of the region. In addition, China will try to weaken US security commitments in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
But if the CCP’s aggressive approach intensifies, this may prompt neighboring countries to form a new anti-Chinese coalition, somehow adjusting to the United States. If this happens, it will become extremely difficult for China to establish peaceful coexistence with the United States. A new cold war in Asia could even result in an unintentional hot war.
The second area of concern is economic. Any confrontation at the military-political level will inevitably accelerate the process of separation, which will transform the economy of the region with a positive amount into an economy with a negative amount. Many Asian countries have benefited from deeper ties with China, although they still depend on the United States for their security. For these countries, a ripened break with China would be especially costly, complex and dangerous. This will force them to oppose US efforts to accelerate integrated separation in favor of a more limited approach focused on sensitive industries related to security and high technology.
The third area is ideological. Uncertainty about the US position does not help solve problems. Asian policymakers are wondering when the United States will have a clear and comprehensive vision of the era after the separation they are striving for. The Trump administration said it wants to create a new Economic Prosperity Network in the region. However, it remains to be seen if this arrangement will be governed by the same one-sided transactional approach, “America First,” which defined the rest of the US policy under Trump.
If so, Asian governments will be less likely to participate. Having spent much of Asia’s goodwill on America over the past three years, Trump has significantly reduced the potential for agreement on security issues.
While the military-political dimension is the determining factor in the new Cold War, and the economic factor is dependent, ideological confrontation will play a reinforcing role. Again, the key question is how far China will go in advancing its model of “authoritarian capitalism” as the “highest” alternative to liberal democracy.
If China promotes its model as aggressively as the Soviet Union once did, the new Cold War will have all the components – and all the tension – of a genuine Cold War. The more persistently China sells its own model, the greater the likelihood that democratic countries will unite against it in the name of their own ideological system.
Of course, the world’s leading democracies have not shown themselves in the best light in the current crisis. But democratic principles – such as respect for human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law – are universal values that still enjoy widespread support among Asians, especially when compared to authoritarianism. China, which is essentially an extractive state, will fight to create an environment in which people can realize their full potential, and this structural constraint will impede its desire to remove the US as the most developed economy in the world.
It remains to be seen how exactly the three dimensions of conflict will interact. Asian leaders should exercise caution, acknowledge that the situation is unstable and plan various scenarios. And, of course, the United States or China would do well to lead a little more modestly. Unfortunately, this character trait does not come to mind when someone thinks about Trump or C. But to prevent accidental disaster, this is absolutely necessary.