People like stretching historical analogies over present-day problems, even when they don’t quite fit. It’s no wonder that the United States’ competition with China in trade and technology has been widely dubbed the “new cold war”, though it bears only a superficial resemblance to that period of ideological conflict.
What the world faces now is much more complicated than that. We’re entering a chaotic period of shifting, unprincipled relationships. It’s not a competition between the “free world” and “authoritarianism” any more but, rather, a world divided against itself, chasing short-term gains as nationalism rises.
Over the last several years, the values and opportunities that China and the US represent to the world have changed at a pace unique in recent history. Most countries have successfully navigated between China and the US, but if relations between the two sour much further, the pressure on other countries to choose sides might be impossible to ignore.
Countries are caught in the middle of a non-ideological battle between economic powerhouses.The US has changed dramatically under President Donald Trump. He has elevated an anti-immigrant, anti-global, anti-free trade agenda, targeting allies and competitors alike. He wields tariffs like a bludgeon over any country he determines to be working against his interests, ranging from Mexico (in the name of stemming the flow of illegal immigrants) to potentially Australia (on who knows what whim).
And he has trampled on cherished democratic norms and the legitimacy of the constitution, Congress, and courts. Gone are the days of the US as a beacon of human rights and open markets, and as the land of seemingly unending opportunity.
Other countries are noting that the world of strict alliances and the spheres of influence are changing. Consider the historically close ties between the US and the Philippines, which includes the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1951. Manila now seeks to re-evaluate the agreement that requires each side to go to the other’s aid in case of an attack. The Philippines conducts military drills with the US, but also takes part in Chinese-led naval exercises – even though Beijing currently controls territory in the South China Sea that Manila sees as its own.
Clearly, the Philippines feels compelled to sit on the fence, as do many other countries. Singapore drills with both the US and Chinese navies. Japan, a strong military ally of the US, has signed a cross-border investment agreement with China. Germany refuses to rule out the use of Huawei mobile-internet equipment despite Washington’s threat to cut off intelligence sharing with Berlin if it does not drop the Chinese vendor.
China is also changing rapidly. After decades of stellar growth, its economy is slowing and its export growth to countries around the world can’t go on forever. Beyond growth, politics is increasingly influencing business.
In the past, as long as countries avoided direct criticism of the Chinese government, they could keep access to the lucrative mainland market. Now, companies are increasingly targeted for purely political purposes and a blacklist is reportedly being created that might include US tech companies and Japanese firms that will no longer work with Huawei. Earlier this year, an unofficial Chinese ban on Australian thermal coal imports looked suspiciously like payback for Canberra’s decision to block Huawei, too.
China’s global campaign to win friends and influence neighbours worked well. Beijing spoke of biding its time and rising peacefully, and most observers didn’t bother to consider what China was biding its time for. However, its aggressive campaign to militarise the entire South China Sea has since shattered illusions of peaceful coexistence under international law.
A military build-up sized more for a global role has also became evident with China’s development of a third aircraft carrier and an army of state-backed hackers targeting foreign countries and companies at an alarming rate. Port agreements around the world have also raised the alarm about China’s naval expansion along with its global economic interests. To even the casual observer, a defensive posture is evolving into an offensive capability.
And here lies the danger of rushing into war rhetoric – trade war, cold war or otherwise. For the lens through which we view the world also limits what we see.
In war, one side wins, the other loses. In the complex world of international relations, however, that’s often not the case. The more that the antagonistic aspects of the US-China relationship get hyped, the less room there is to negotiate. People may then erroneously believe that conflict is inevitable.
At this moment in history, neither the US nor China represents an ideal to the rest of the world. Both want the world to conform to their specific versions of economic success. Both are challenging what it means to be allied with other nations. Tight configurations have loosened.
If the global order fractures along fault lines, there won’t be two sides like in the cold war, but many chaotic fragments that will be hard to make whole again.
This op-ed originally appeared on the SCMP website.