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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Beware of the New Cold War

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 defeat in Afghanistan marked by unceremonious exit despite using Pakistan as a scapegoat for two decades and last but not the least, an upright stance by the prime minister of Pakistan for not allowing any military bases to the USA and “NO MORE” instead of accepting “DO MORE” has added more fuel to the fire as for impact on Pakistan-USA bilateral relations. The American-Indian bear hug as strategic allies in the Asia-Pacific region to contest China and most hypocritical 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 most of the American debacles since the end of second great war; 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. So calling spade a spade at such a critical juncture by the prime minister of Pakistan is not out of place at all; nevertheless, prudence need to prevail among the concerned institutions instead of uncalled for follow up provocative statements for domestic political mileage. Moreover, 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.

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 (USA, Japan, Australia, India) 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 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 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.

14 th July 2021

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