Is a Second Cold War Brewing Between China and The United States?
The term “Cold War 2.0” became popular during Donald Trump’s presidency in the context of the US-China competition, which has been weakened by China’s economic rise. By becoming the world’s fastest expanding economy, China is challenging the US-led economic system and creating the groundwork for a military dominance.
China, the world’s second-largest military spender after the United States, is using its military strength to push its territorial claims in the South China Sea, with a rumoured military expenditure of almost $250 billion (SCS). China is building artificial islands in the SCS and establishing its first overseas military station in Djibouti, at the vital chokepoint of Bab el-Mandeb.
These measures are affecting US perceptions of China’s rise as a danger, and as a result, a new global race for hegemonic position between the US and China has begun.
Comparisons between the Past and the Present
In many ways, the Cold War 2.0 resembles the first Cold War (1945-1991). First, during the Cold War, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were the leading rivals for superpower status; yet, the threat of an open military war between the two was considerably mitigated by nuclear deterrence. As a result, both the US and the USSR were able to collaborate on key global concerns, such as settling the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis.
Although nuclear deterrence is still a viable option today, the setting of the US-China rivalry is significantly more dependent on economic interdependence—trade relations totaled $660 billion in 2018—while US trade with the USSR remained low throughout the Cold War.
Nonetheless, the current “trade war” between the United States and China has diminished their mutual reliance, allowing for more varied foreign policy behaviour. China has also attempted to exclude the US from its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to increase its economic influence through a multi-channel yet integrated global framework.
Second, the pivot of the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was located in Europe’s western and eastern sections, respectively. To prevent the USSR from expanding, the US deployed military assets to Europe and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance. Asia is the core of the US-China confrontation in Cold War 2.0.
The US has developed new networks of aligned states to “encircle” China, such the Quad (composed of the US, Japan, India, and Australia) and AUKUS (the US, UK, and Australia), and routinely deploys the US Navy into contested sea lanes to discourage Chinese military adventurism. Furthermore, the US has strategic partnerships with South Korea and Japan, as well as forces stationed on their respective territory.
This troop positioning follows the concept of “extended deterrence,” which revolves around placing the associated states under the US “security umbrella” in order to deter hostile governments such as China.
Third, the Cold War was mostly dominated by global proxy warfare. Instead of participating in direct military engagement, the US and USSR sponsored and armed opposing groups on foreign soil, culminating in three major proxy conflicts: the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), and the Afghanistan War (1979-1990). Although there is no such proxy battle between the US and China at the moment, both governments are supporting rival factions abroad, either militarily or diplomatically.
China opposes US policy in countries such as Syria and Iraq, opposing regime change in the former and viewing US involvement in the latter as the primary source of instability and provocation. On the other side, the US has a history of arming extremist groups in order to advance its foreign policy agenda, whether in Afghanistan in the 1980s or in the current Syria crisis.
More recently, the US withdrew the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” from its list of designated foreign terrorist organisations, which China regards with distrust. As a result, despite the fact that there is no actual proxy battle between the United States and China, their foreign policies are pushing them closer together.
Cold War 2.0 Functionalism
Despite similarities to the first Cold War, the viability of Cold War 2.0 is doubtful. First, the rivalry during the Cold War was based on ideological differences. The growth of communism in the decolonized states was viewed as a threat to the capitalist nature of the Western liberal order. Similarly, the other bloc saw Western capitalism as part of an imperialist drive to consolidate power over the global system.
The ideology involved emotions and fears, leading to the establishment of guerrilla troops and bloc alignment. For example, Fidel Castro’s guerilla efforts in Cuba and Mao Zedong’s in China were heavily influenced by Soviet communist principles, which built a “Communist Camp.”
Similarly, dread of communism, together with notions of censorship, usurpation of freedom rights, and economic dysfunction, generated a hostile “Capitalist Camp” led by the United States. This marked the beginning of bipolarity and a new power balance.
However, ideological disparities between the United States and China are less prevalent in current procedures. China has opened up to the outside world and benefited enormously from capitalism. In economic terms, China has now rebuilt its economy through public-private partnerships, and its foreign policy stance neither preserves the ideas of communism nor repeats its support for communist factions. The United States also see China as a geopolitical competitor rather than an ideological threat.
This lack of ideological struggle has prevented the first Cold War’s setup of obvious bloc development. In addition, China does not pretend to be the leader of any bloc, nor does it have the cultural clout to persuade other countries to join it. Similarly, the chance of bloc formation is reduced as a result of post-Cold War policies. The global emphasis has turned away from military alliances and toward economic interdependence. As a result, China has been able to build commercial ties with other countries. As a result, smaller governments, while influenced by Western liberalism, perceive China as more of an economic opportunity than a security danger.
Second, unlike the Soviet Union, China is not willing or capable of engaging the United States in an armed battle, either actively or passively.
China is challenging the United States’ supremacy over the global economic framework, but it poses no threat to the United States’ multiple security ties. Similarly, China is the largest consumer of energy, primarily from the Middle East, and the rapid delivery of oil and gas to China is currently secured by the presence of the US naval fleet, which is viewed as a security guarantor by regional states. Similarly, despite being the world’s second-largest military spender, China falls behind the United States and Russia in terms of weapon development.
In order to increase its weight, China has limited the scope of its security cooperation with medium or weak governments. China, on the other hand, is reliant on specific governments in order to expand its economic links across numerous regions.
For example, China has been forging commercial alliances in Eastern Europe as a result of its links with Russia, which has historical importance in the region. Similarly, China is gaining oil contracts in Iraq and rehabilitation projects in Syria as a result of its greater partnership with Russia and Iran.
Rethinking the Future
The preceding debate assesses the uncertainties in the concept of Cold War 2.0. It is clear that the possibility of a second cold war in the aftermath of the US-China competition is remote. Instead, the creation of an anti-US nexus in various domains would be a more fitting characterization of Cold War 2.0. For example, China is threatening the United States’ economic dominance, while Russia’s powerful nuclear and conventional military forces may pose challenges to US military might.
However, Russia’s economy is facing challenges as a result of its underdeveloped industrial base, which has left the country dependent on energy and armaments exports. In this way, Russia and China have a clear division of work while competing with the United States.
Finally, a prospective Cold War 2.0 differs from the original Cold War in that bloc politics have given way to nexus politics, in which intermediate powers seek equidistance from contending big powers. Despite being a member of the Quad, India’s bilateral trade with China will exceed $100 billion in 2021. Similarly, the EU’s strategic ties with the US did not prohibit it from engaging China, as stated in its September 2021 Indo-Pacific policy document. Second, while Sino-US competition has obviously materialised in the South China Sea, Russia’s role in opposing the US cannot be disregarded, particularly in light of the Ukraine Crisis.
Kazakhstan’s turmoil in 2022, and Russia’s military response to it, is just another example of how the Russo-American rivalry persists in a variety of spheres. As a result, rather than focusing on a single state, Cold War 2.0 must be examined through a multipolar lens. The United States faces challenges on several fronts, all of which are aimed at balancing US dominance in international politics.