Indifference of other countries blocks US bid to create an anti-China cold war
US-China ‘tensions’ are undoubtedly at the centre of tectonic changes taking place at the global level. Whereas the US is actively seeking to create a ‘new cold war’ coalition against China, it is also becoming increasingly evident that the US thinking is primarily rooted in a bi-polar mindset that has already lost much of its relevance in the contemporary world. This is especially because China, unlike the Soviet Union, is not widely seen as a serious threat even in the Western world.
As it stands, unlike the US, Europe is not keen to shut its doors to China and/or ‘decouple’ from it. At the same time, China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) allows it a deep presence in countries and regions where the US wants to fight the ‘new cold war.’
For these countries, following the US in its footsteps and ‘decouple’ from China would mean ‘decoupling’ from the new silk road and opportunities for trade and development that it offers. The US, as it stands, has no alternative route of trade to present.
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Mike Pompeo’s recent California speech highlighted the direction the US is trying to take global politics in. He said that the US and its allies need to use “more creative and assertive” ways to confront and roll back China. In other words, a distinguishing feature of the ‘new cold war’ is that it does not seek to ‘contain’ China; it seeks to force China out of Europe, Africa and Asia & the Pacific to make way for continued US hegemony.
Ground realities in Europe and Asia, however, indicate that the US call for a ‘global coalition’ against China and ‘decouple’ from it is largely falling on deaf ears. Regional countries, on the other hand, are seeking to build mechanisms of cooperation and ‘constructive engagement’ with China.
This is particularly evident from the way ASEAN, where the US has historically played an active role, is still seeking to negotiate a code of conduct with China for freedom of navigation in the South China sea. That the ASEAN is not in a confrontation or ‘decoupling’ mood is due mainly to the fact these countries no longer have faith in the US’ Asia policy. The memory of President Trump missing some key ASEAN Summits last year is still afresh in the minds of the leaders of this region. The way President Trump killed, in the name of “America First”, both the US’ ‘Asia Pivot’ and the trade deal involving almost 40 countries, has forced these countries to look for alternative means of engagement with China.
It explains why the US’ recent statement on South China Sea--- “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the SCS as its maritime empire”---has received stony silence. Malaysian Foreign Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein chose to diffuse the aggressive US stance and said that “countries [need] to refrain from military posturing” amid tensions in the SCS.
“We have to avoid military posturing as it is not going to help in solving the problem, and we need all the ASEAN countries to agree on that…”, he added.
It is evident that the emphasis is on avoiding ASEAN’s involvement in confrontation with China or any effective involvement in ‘bi-polar’ politics. Much of this is due also to the fact that many ASEAN countries have important trade and economic relations with China and an unnecessary aggressive approach to China can have significantly negative implications for them.
As far as South Asia is concerned, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan becoming imminent, the CPEC gaining pace and China’s BRI moving further into Iran, the regional geo-political landscape, unlike the Soviet Union vs. US cold war days, will be far from conducive for an extended front against China.
With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the former’s ability to leave a direct impact on developments in Central Asia will also be curtailed. Russia’s own Eurasian connectivity program is another hindrance that the US will have to overcome to make its ‘new cold war’ a success story.
However, significantly enough, the US is ramping up ‘new cold war’ rhetoric at a time when it is actually withdrawing from the heartland of Eurasia. The ‘new cold war’, therefore, will not offer the US any chance to rebuild a direct military presence.
Whereas US withdrawal indicates a significantly reduced possibility of an active ‘cold war front’ in South Asia, a crucial reason why a number of countries, both in Europe and Asia, have not responded actively to the US call for a global coalition against China is that many of them see this call as being Trump-specific and seem to believe that the global strategic landscape will change once Trump’s electoral defeat forces him out of the White House.
US President Trump is already trailing in election polls. His rival, Joe Biden, has already announced about ‘ending’ the US trade war with China and has not spoken in favour of increasing tensions with China and/or build a ‘cold war’ either.
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A potential return to ‘normalisation’ in sight and the increasing difficulty, even if Trump stays in power, of sustaining a ‘cold war’ in the post-pandemic economically devastated world combine to make it increasingly difficult for the US to revamp a bi-polar ‘cold war’ and convince smaller countries to design a strong policy vis-à-vis China.
With Europe already increasingly asserting an independent path towards China and even confronting the US on the question of Iran, it is evident that the global system has already become multi-polar. The US, therefore, no longer have the luxury of favourable circumstances that it had in the post -Second World War era to force the world into the straitjacket of bi-polar politics.