Whereas Trump’s negative portrayal of China goes back to his 2016 election campaign when he directly called out China, saying “because China’s going bad it’s going to bring us down too”, a number of subsequent US officials documents, policy papers and reviews have left no stone unturned in painting China as a ‘bully’, threatening US interests worldwide. The US president’s recent most threat to cut-off all trade relations with China is thus very much a continuation of the same negative policy. It has now received an additional boost due to the spread of COVID-19. The fact that the virus spread from Wuhan in China has handed president Trump a convenient opportunity to bash China for political gains, although the core reason for the spread of virus in the US is the Trump administration’s own mishandling and failure to act in time. Whereas bashing China for the spread of the virus may serve Trump’s purpose in terms of escaping the responsibility, starting a ‘new cold war’ with China may allow the US to divide the world into anti and pro-China blocks, thus preventing an effective materialisation of China’s idea of global “community of shared identity.”
The US strategy behind cutting-off trade ties and creating conditions for a ‘new cold war’ is full-spectrum dominance as against the ever-increasing prospects of a multipolar world in which the US would become just first among the equals. In fact, the way the US has failed in materialising its strategic objectives in Afghanistan—where the US wanted a permanent military presence against Central Asia/Russia and China—Syria and Iraq shows that the US ability to unilaterally manage its interventions aimed at ‘regime-change’ failed not because the US did not have the capacity to achieve its objectives but because of soft and hard, direct and indirect counter-interventions of its strategic competitors.
Furthermore, China’s successes with its Belt & Road Initiative and its ability to penetrate the world economically have created a strong possibility for a world order that would least need a US dollar dominated global financial system. As such, the fact that China, along with its allies, is at the heart of tectonic changes taking place globally and threatening a US dominated system explains why Trump is now drumbeating a ‘new cold war’ and how roots of bashing China go a lot deeper than an immediate election expediency, although its importance cannot be denied in terms of a strong tendency of US politics to create external enemies for popular consumption.
Only this time, however, this external enemy is likely to serve both domestic and geo-political interest of the US. Whereas talked of cutting-off trade ties with China, the US already is preparing to divide the world into blocks that would strongly resemble a division of the world on the US-Soviet Union cold war era pattern.
A linchpin of this division is, as many reports in the mainstream western media have shown, a US push towards creating an ‘alliance of trusted partners’ based upon a dubious concept of ‘Economic Prosperity Network.’ The idea behind creating this network is to tackle a US vulnerability to China. It aims to convince global US companies and groups to systematically extricate themselves from China and instead partner with members of the so-called ‘economic prosperity network’ to reduce US economic dependence on Beijing.
Whereas the overt purpose is to align multinational companies with US geo-politics, the network of ‘like-minded countries’ becomes relevant in terms of allowing such companies to relocate to countries, if they cannot relocate to the US, which are friendly to the US and where labour is still cheap.
Following the ‘new cold war’ rhetoric and a deliberate demonization of China, many US allies in Europe and elsewhere are already thinking of reviewing their trade relations with China. Accordingly, a debate in the western media has already started with regards to tackling the ‘China challenge.’ This debate, purportedly aiming to draw new lines and follow the US lead in rolling back economic relations with China, is not academic; it is deeply political and proposes conflict.
Even beyond ‘the West’, long-term western allies such as Japan are already pursuing a potential ‘decoupling’ with China by relocating their companies. This strategy of relocation is being officially funded by the Japanese government, allocating 220 billion yen (US$2 billion) for companies shifting production back to Japan and 23.5 billion yen for those seeking to move production to other countries. In fact, this funding is coming out of its economic stimulus package dolled out to deal with virus that ‘spread from China.’ What this pattern shows is that the so-called end of the ‘era of off-shoring US jobs is over’ is being followed not just by the US but many of the ‘like-minded’ countries, virtually operationalising the ‘new cold war.’
Will this ‘cold war’ succeed? To begin with, it is happening at a time when the entire world is under the grip of COVID-19. Most of the global economy is in shut down mode. China, however, has not only successfully gotten rid of the virus but its economic growth has relatively been much higher. Even with COVID-19, China’s trade with Belt and Road nations grew 3.2% in the first quarter of 2020, although it looks insignificant when compared with the 10.8% for the whole of 2019. It means that China, despite being hit by the virus, will come out of the virus-hit world a lot stronger than many of its competitors and far better placed to tackle the ‘new cold war.’ What adds more to it is the fast-growing Sino-Russian strategic partnership, a partnership being unwittingly facilitated by Washington due mainly to its tendency to categorise both states as the two top “threats.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.