Are the United States and China entering a new Cold War?

Widening rift:U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping in Osaka in June 2019.AFPBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Widening rift:U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping in Osaka in June 2019.AFPBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI  

Relations have taken a hit after the COVID-19 outbreak; experts say tensions are unlikely to ease in near future as mutual mistrust is building up

Relations between the U.S. and China have plunged to a nadir in recent weeks. On May 15, President Donald Trump threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China over the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan. He had earlier called the coronavirus “Chinese virus” and threatened to seek compensation from China for the damages caused by the outbreak.

China, sometimes through the state-run media, has hit back, calling Mr. Trump’s recent comments “lunacy”.

The rising tensions between the two superpowers have prompted many experts to warn of a new Cold War. Hawks in the Trump administration openly push for a more aggressive approach towards Beijing.

Relations between the two countries had started deteriorating well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy called China as “a revisionist power” seeking “to erode American security and prosperity”.

In September 2019, while responding to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford’s comment that the American government was formulating a strategy to address potential “security challenges” by China, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing “urged” the U.S. “to abandon the Cold-War mentality”

The ‘Novikov telegram’

COVID-19 appears to have aggravated the crisis. “Record high temperatures have been recorded in Sino-U.S. relations in recent years and the pandemic is no exception to this. Competition rules the relationship, and flexibility and mature handling are in short supply on both sides. Uncertainty prevails, whether it on the question of resolving trade problems, or on the maritime front in the East and South China Seas, on technology, or on mutual mud-slinging on COVID-19-related issues,” Nirupama Menon Rao, former Foreign Secretary, told The Hindu .

In early April, China’s Ministry of State Security sent an internal report to the country’s top leaders, stating that hostility in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak could tip relations with the U.S. into confrontation, according to a Reuters report. One of the officials the report has quoted said some in the Chinese intelligence community see the internal report as China’s version of the ‘Novikov Telegram’, referring to a report Nikolai Novikov, the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, sent to Moscow in September 1946, laying out his analysis of the U.S. conduct.

In his report, Novikov had said the U.S. was determined on world domination, and suggested the Soviet Union create a buffer in Eastern Europe. Novikov’s telegram was a response to the “Long Telegram”, the 8,000-word report sent by George Kennan, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to Washington, in which he said the Soviet Union was heavily armed and determined to spread communism. Historians often trace the origins of the Cold War to these telegrams.

Nationalist overdrive

So where is the current crisis in relations between the U.S. and China headed? According to Ms. Rao, tensions will not go away. “This situation is unlikely to ease until the U.S. presidential election. Post-election, temperatures could decrease, but a deep-rooted antipathy towards China has gripped the popular and political imagination in the U.S. Therefore, tensions will not go away. In China, the leadership and public opinion are both on a nationalist overdrive and the Trump administration is seen as the prime antagonist. The prognosis is not encouraging,” she said.

Does it mean both countries are already in a Cold War? “There are similarities between the current crisis and the Cold War. The political elites of both China and the U.S., like the Soviet Union and the U.S. back then, see each other as their main rivals. We can also see this antagonism moving from the political elite to the popular perception,” said Jabin T. Jacob, Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University.

“But there are key differences as well. We don’t see the kind of proxy conflicts between the U.S. and China which we did during the Cold War. The world is also not bipolar any more. There are third parties such as the EU, Russia, India and Japan. These parties increasingly have a choice whether or not to align with either power as they see fit and on a case by case basis. This leads to a very different kind of international order than during the Cold War,” Mr. Jacob told The Hindu .

But Mr. Jacob warned that ties between the U.S. and China could take a worse turn if Mr. Trump is re-elected this November. “The Cold War was out and out ideological between the communist and capitalist blocs. For China, a country ruled by a communist party where the primary goal of all state apparatus is preserving the regime in power, it’s always been ideological. The U.S. has started realising this angle about China now. The Republican party has ideological worldviews, too. If Trump gets re-elected, the ideological underpinnings of the U.S.-China rivalry could get further solidified.”

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