I’ve been lucky enough to be attending Cambridge University’s ‘Virtual Summer Festival of Learning Talks’ and even luckier to attend two talks given by Sir Tony Brenton (former British ambassador to Russia). The topic at hand in both is whether or not we can expect a new Cold War between the United States and China as the key players – and spoiler alert – the answer is yes.
The Old Order
Let’s go back to the Yalta Conference – 1945 – where the key players were Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. Stalin wanted Eastern Europe, ostensibly to keep the Germans from rearming again, and Stalin got what he wanted. Because Europe was in a fragile state after WWII and unable to stand up to Stalin alone, the Americans decided to help both with the Marshall plan and by committing to the military defence of Europe with NATO. In response, the Russians pulled together their Warsaw Pact.
The stage is set – two major players are in place – two very distinct players – the East vs. the West – with wildly different and readily identifiable agendas. The West wanted democracy and capitalism to underpin the world order and the East, wanted communism and state run economy.
The ideological ‘confrontation’ went global when in 1949, China (led by Mao Zedong) goes Communist – one up for the (former) Soviet Union. For the most part, this Cold War avoided military intervention (Viet Nam and Korea being notable exceptions) because of the threat of nuclear war – which neither side was keen to unleash.
Finally the (former) Soviet Union started melting down economically – their state-run economy turned out to be no match for capitalism – this in turn, brought down their military power. With the Reagan Era, when the Americans started to seriously push back against the Soviets, it all collapsed with the Berlin Wall (Berlin had been the centre of the attention right from the start back in 1945) falling in 1988 and the (former) Soviet Union splitting up into 15 individual states.
Now there was one superpower – the United States and geopolitics as we’d known it post WWII came to a halt and the new status quo remained in place for the better part of 30 years.
The New Order
During most of this time, China kept a lower international profile – focusing on its own domestic stuff. Mao turned out to be a bit of a disaster with the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) where 35 million died and then again with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when it really goes all wrong again. Mao died in 1976. Enter Deng Xiao pin (1978-1992) – who sets about making China ‘great again’ through pragmatic modernisation. His approach was that ‘we do what works’ – enough of idealism – and the economy starts to take off – ‘to get rich is glorious’. During this period, China was under no illusions that when opening up with the West some ‘flies’ (capitalism) will ‘get it’ – the price paid for progress. It worked.
The Chinese are arriving fully back on the scene doing very well indeed and now, China may become the richest country in the world by the end of this decade – and so it becomes more assertive internationally – they want to reclaim their land – they want to be the major power in their region (again) and so are taking a firmer hand. Don’t you remember the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – oops – how did this happen? A Leninist government is a now a major economic power?
The trade deficit Yep, the Chinese economy is now booming and the trade deficit with the United States continues to get worse and worse (from the perspective of the Americans). So Trump gets nasty and China retaliates. American attempts to enlist the Europeans to help hasn’t been met with the enthusiasm the Americans had hoped. France and Germany do more business with China than the Americans and understandably are not keen to upset the apple cart.
Worse, North Korea starts to play ball too. That is not to say that China is rooting for North Korea because they are not keen for a unified Korea either. So they must fight their turf and they do. The Chinese are intent on taking the leadership role in their region and that means they are also intent on taking back that which they believe is their own – Hong Kong and Taiwan.
As the result of the Treaty of Nanking, the British took possession of Hong Kong in the 1841 as part of its imperialist push for world dominance – this time to push their opium trade. Back in 1997 when the British were required to return Hong Kong to the Chinese, another treaty was signed which was meant to guarantee certain freedoms to the residents of Hong Kong. But the Chinese are no longer keen to adhere to that and for the residents, it’s not good news. Sir Tony Brenton suggests that the West has no alternative but to abandon Hong Kong to its fate – the short answer is that there is little that can be done about it – although one clever tactic is when the British invited citizens of Hong Kong to resettle in Britain – it undermines China without be openly confrontational which quite honestly is likely to be the way the American would rather see it going.
When the Communists took over China in 1949, the Chinese nationalist party took refuge offshore to Taiwan. In the long-lasting fit against communism, understandably, the Americans support Taiwan. Now, the Chinese want it and the Americans want to ensure they don’t get it. Will the US use military force to support Taiwan as China keeps pressing reunification? Well, it is interesting to note that the Americans have never committed themselves to defence of Taiwan as they have through NATO for others like the UK. Sir Tony Brenton suggests it’s almost inevitable that China will get Taiwan back and if China is sensible, they will take a soft-glove approach.
But, says Sir Tony Brenton, eventually the patience of the Chinese will wan and then the US will have to take a stance. Chances are good the American public will push for a tough stance that could start WW3. To date, relations between the United States and China have not improved under Biden but there remains hope. Biden has good advisors who know what they are doing – but the economics of the situation may well push the agenda and we all know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men. Watch this space for the G20 conference in Rome in early October 2021 (if it happens). Biden has a chance to make new moves.
Will they support the Chinese? Sir Tony Brenton is of two minds on this – one side, Russia thinks of itself as European – in a push, they’d want to side with Europe against China. The Russians do not want to be part of China. But then Russia does take a different stance on other issues than the Europeans and if we keep loading sanctions (and upsetting Putin) they may just think – why side with the Europeans?
Also, Russia needs China’s trade – Russia produces raw materials and China needs them – well, that cements the two together economically and economics is the name of the game these days. Finally, the westerners are on a messianic crusade for ‘human rights’ and the Russians well -know they are on the wrong side of that – and that does push them closer to China.
It’s highly likely that we will see a 2nd Cold War that will play out very differently than the last one. The issues are not so clear cut as they were before – and some players like Germany and France do more trade with China than the United States. The ideologies that drove the first Cold War are no longer in play – however much the Americans might think otherwise. Economics is now the name of the game and whilst the (former) Soviet Union went down because of that, it’s more likely that this time the Americans will meet the same fate – it’s more than likely that by the end of this decade, the Chinese economy will have surpassed that of the United States and, as happened with the (former) Soviet Union, when the economy fails, so does military power – and at the end of the day, there is nothing else left.