Analysis | Are the U.S. and China entering a new Cold War?

Relations between the U.S. and China 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.

Earlier this month, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on the Chinese journalists working in the country, limiting their work period to 90 days. Last week, President Trump extended for one more year a ban on U.S. companies from using telecom equipment made by “companies positing national security risks” (read Huawei and ZTE). China, sometimes through the state-run media, has hit back, calling Trump’s comments “lunacy” and Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, an “evil politician”.

Also read: Coronavirus | China rejects U.S. charge of vaccine research theft

Confronting China

The rising tensions between the two super powers have prompted many experts to warn of a new Cold War. “A rising chorus of American voices now argues that confronting China should become the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, akin to the Cold War against the Soviet Union,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on May 7, adding that it would be a strategic error. Hawks in the Trump administration openly push for a more aggressive approach towards Beijing.

Ties 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” and “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests”. 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 said. “We urge relevant officials in the United States to abandon the Cold-War mentality and zero-sum game mindset…”

Also read: ‘Once Upon a Virus’: China mocks U.S. coronavirus response in Lego-like animation

The ‘Novikov telegram’

COVID-19 appears to have aggravated the crisis, pushing both countries, already reeling under trade, technology and maritime disputes, to take a more hostile position towards each other. “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, who served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009 to 2011, 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 coronavirus 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 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.

Also read: Trump faults China for coronavirus’ spread, says U.S. investigating

In his report, sent to Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Novikov said the U.S. 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, and a peaceful coexistence was impossible. 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? Ms. Rao, who also served as India’s Ambassador in both Washington and Beijing, said 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 — the targeting of ethnic Chinese professionals and others in the U.S. and of American individuals or entities in China is a case in point,” said Jabin T. Jacob, Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation in Delhi.

Ideological conflict

“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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