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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Bells Toll for a New Cold War

The U.S. and Allies’ exist from Afghanistan and Middle East followed by marshalling of new alliances in Asia-Pacific region like Quad (USA, Australia, Japan, India) professed to become a mini NATO before long and latest military alliance named AUKUS (Australia, UK and USA) with nuclear submarine pledged to become part of Australian navy has finally rung the bell for commencement of a New Cold War. Although efforts by some quarters are being made to keep this development at low tide by churning out the narrative that it is unlikely to be a Cold War between USA & Former Soviet Union or USA &China of 1950 and 1960s, yet keen observers cannot relegate the prospects of a potentially catastrophic political, economic and military conflict(s) in the region. The recalling of ambassadors from USA and Australia by France in protest to cancellation of French Diesel Powered submarine by Australia, besides European calls for creating a military force specific to threats to Europe or deployment of NATO forces without consent from USA is indicative of changed priorities and more focus on individual state’s interests than a larger context as a backlash of NATO’s involvement in U.S led endless wars as well as Trump’s insult poured over Europe. Nevertheless, there is general consensus among the experts that the return to geopolitical tension and jostling for position among the great powers has created the basic conditions for a new cold war. But what’s most concerning are the warnings by some serious scholars that the rivalry between the two powers could be spiraling down towards the Thucydides Trap, for which Taiwan may become a triggering issue. Many Americans worry that the Chinese dragon will prove to be a fire breather. There is a cauldron of anxiety about China, which will become a “cauldron of paranoia” now as the US slips towards a new Cold War.

Some leading Chinese experts opine that China will determinedly and unswervingly stick to its chosen path to success. It will continue to expand its cordial international relations with a view to creating a harmonious global community with a shared future, and resolutely opposing and working hard to avoid a cold war. Nevertheless, the Chinese world largest Navy’s presence in the region with Chinese String of Pearls naval bases/ facilities has given quiver to competitors in the Asia-Pacific. The opinion on the AUKUS and Quad is divided within Australia. The sober minds suggest that If Australia is going to shut the gate in respect of China, which puts at risk more than $100 billion of exports that will impact on living standards of Australians. This is the problem when you try to wrap the totality of government under the umbrella of national security. For others, the announcement mentions developing joint capabilities and information and technology sharing across the UK, US, and Australia and picks up on cyber security, artificial intelligence, and quantum communications. This move could end up being a serious contribution in support of nuclear non-proliferation, offsetting real concerns about the increasing risks nuclear technology poses. If successful, it will hamper Beijing’s capabilities to further acquire cutting-edge military tech to apply in its home-grown aircraft carriers. It is a significant step-up to counter China’s growing military presence in the West Pacific; the disregard of the presence of two nuclear missile military bases on Australian soil and unwittingly becoming a pawn in an extremely dangerous New Cold War is too obvious. Secondly and equally important, China also perceives the AUKUS pact as a provocation involving countries increasing their appetite to prepare for military escalation over the Taiwan Strait with greater risk of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, yet it remains ambiguous whether Japan and India will play a role or join AUKUS as the alliance develops or will there be more allies joining in Quad. Indian pragmatic heads think that for partners such as India, unfortunately, this American quandary will provide no comfort. During the first Cold War, India had a Soviet card, and even a China card. That does not exist this time around, as India faces the brunt of China’s power in a variety of forms, from Ladakh to the UN Security Council. India, thus, cannot approach this Cold War as it did the last one – as if it is a prized ally that can stand aloof and make others bid for its support. And there are other dangers too. Unlike the early 1960s, China and Pakistan have now been allies for long – “iron brothers” – with India as the only real glue that binds this alliance. In previous instances, Beijing had its own reasons for not militarily coming to Pakistan’s help, including its own military weakness and unpreparedness. But New Delhi will now have to assume, if only for prudence, that it will face both together in any future war.

The CCP’s rise to power in 1949 wiped out U.S. political, economic, and cultural ties to the Chinese mainland. In response to Washington’s effort to contain and isolate China, Beijing forged an alliance with Moscow and soon found itself directly fighting the United States during the Korean War. It is quite obvious now that the United States and China are entangled in a competition that might prove more enduring, more wide-ranging, and more intense than any other international rivalry in modern history, including the last Cold War. In both countries, fears have grown that the contest might escalate into open conflict. Many in Washington argue that this tougher new consensus on China has emerged in response to more assertive, even aggressive moves on Beijing’s part. On the other hand, the Chinese official line remains that bilateral ties should be guided by the principle of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” as Chinese President Xi Jinping described it in his first telephone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden, in February 2021. Nevertheless, just as American views on China have hardened in recent years, so have many Chinese officials come to take a dimmer view of the United States.

While in the United States, China’s rise is a source of nervousness; however, in China the country’s growing status is a source of self-assurance and delight. Many Chinese analysts highlight the political dysfunction, socioeconomic inequality, ethnic and racial divisions, and economic stagnation that plague the United States and other Western democracies. They also point out that many developing countries and former socialist countries that emulated Western models after the Cold War are not in good shape, and they note how Afghanistan and Iraq, the two places where the United States has intervened most forcefully, continue to suffer from poverty, instability, and political violence. For all these reasons, many Chinese, especially the younger generation, feel fully justified in meeting U.S. pressure with confidence and even a sense of bold triumphalism.

More recently, the western Chinese region of Xinjiang has become a major source of friction. Beijing charges that violent riots there in July 2009 were planned and organized from abroad and those Uyghur activists in the United States who received encouragement and support from American officials and organizations acted as a “black hand” behind the unrest. The protests in Hong Kong in 2014 and then in 2019-20 were attributed by China to the U.S. government and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, which were followed up by American sanctions against Chinese officials. Finally, no issue has bred as much Chinese distrust of the United States as the status of Taiwan. In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty has long been U.S. interference. Beijing believes that Washington was the driving force behind the “colour revolutions” that took place in the first decade of this century in former Soviet states and that the U.S. government has ginned up protest movements against authoritarian regimes around the world, including the Arab revolts of 2010–11. The CCP’s concerns about U.S. meddling in China’s internal affairs have a direct connection to the tension between Washington and Beijing on a range of geopolitical issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, creation of anti-China economic cum mini NATO Alliance as Quad Group and finger-pointing over the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s gradually more forceful posture in these disagreements is in part a reaction to the CCP’s perception that the United States is attempting to weaken the country and delegitimize the party.

While POTUS Joe Biden may take solace in Obama’s slogan “cooperate with China where we can and compete where we must”, yet most experts opine that to avoid open conflict, leaders in Washington and Beijing need to accept two fundamental realities. The first is that the CCP enjoys immense popularity among the Chinese people; its grip on power is unshakable. External pressures on China to change its political system are likely to be futile and might even backfire by promoting unity and inflaming anti-Western sentiment. The second reality is that the United States will remain the most powerful actor in shaping the global order. The country’s problems are obvious: racial tensions, political polarization, socioeconomic inequality, and weakened alliances. Its strength, however, lies in its diversity, its culture of innovation, and the resilience of its civil society; and those attributes remain unchanged.

It needs no emphasis that if the United States and China fail to manage their rivalry, the world will face splitting up and commotion. Therefore, to prevent a contest from becoming a calamity, Taiwan and the U.S.-Chinese economic competition will need to be meticulously managed by both the big powers. American veteran independent senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders opines that the unprecedented global challenges that the United States faces today i.e. climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, massive economic inequality, terrorism, corruption, authoritarianism—are all shared global challenges. They cannot be solved by any one country acting alone. They require increased international cooperation including with China. Americans must resist the temptation to try to forge national unity through hostility and fear. Developing a mutually beneficial relationship with China will not be easy. But we can do better than a new Cold War. It is hoped that the saner voice from a very senior and sincere American will be heeded by the hawks in the American establishment to avoid a new Cold War that may as a consequence result in a direct military conflict with China or in a number of military clashes among allies of both the great powers in the Asia Pacific region. The European countries with the wisdom of hindsight of two world wars and endless American wars thereafter; already seem more determined to stay focused on the North Atlantic region and on mainland Europe by contesting Russian influence and selective cooperation with China as highlighted in my piece “Impact of NATO’s Strategy 2030.

Pakistan has been under a lot of pressure by the USA and allies after joining the Chinese BRI and its flagship project China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The American-Indian bear hug as strategic allies in the Asia-Pacific region to contest China and most duplicitous coercion of Pakistan through FATF on behalf of India has actually proved counterproductive and forced Pakistan to further slide toward the Chinese camp. While USA may realise the folly of pushing Pakistan away too late as has been the case in the past; yet Pakistan must also comprehend that these tectonic shifts and realignments are taking place as a result of the fresh global strategic contest giving birth to a new Cold War primarily between USA and China with the old American rival Russia standing with China now. Besides, in order to maintain balance in our foreign, economic, defence and other domestic policies, it is an inescapable imperative to develop a clear understanding of the new Cold War shaping up at a fast pace primarily with obvious pitfalls for the allies of both the global powers. Pakistan therefore needs to tread carefully on the newly chosen strategic path and avoid becoming a cat’s paw once again. Instead, it must result in better military deterrence and sure footed economic prosperity for the country as suggested in”Pak-US Relations: How to Bridge the Widening Gap”.

23rd September 2021

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