19.05.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US Prepares for a ‘New Age of Conflict’ with China


Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently warned that the current state of US-China relations carries seeds of a new age of ‘cold war.’ This assessment not only builds upon a series of episodes of confrontation that occurred in past years (since 2016), but also forewarns more confrontation. Also, Kissinger’s assessment illustrates how the Joe Biden administration is no different from the previous Trump administration in terms of its China policy. Indeed, while the Biden administration defines its relations with China as ‘extremely competitive’, the nature of competition does have enough potential to spark many military and non-military conflicts, if not a full-scale war. A latest US intelligence assessment illustrates the tension that underlies the US-China ties, and shows how tensions are permeating almost all aspects of state-craft, defense and foreign policy. This is indeed the very definition of ‘cold war’, even if Antony Blinken, the current US secretary of state, thinks otherwise.

According to “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”, China has emerged as the biggest threat to the US interests in the 21st century because of the Chinese Communist Party’s push for global power status, an objective that can be realised, the US intelligence community thinks, only at the expense of the US supremacy. As such, even while the Chinese authorities continue to emphasise a community of shared interests, the US continues to assess its ties with China in zero-sum terms in which China’s gains automatically translate into loses for the US, and where inter-dependence fails to translate itself into a mechanism of co-operation.

According to the intelligence assessment,

“Beijing is increasingly combining its growing military power with its economic, technological, and diplomatic clout to preserve the CCP, secure what it views as its territory and regional preeminence, and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense.”

Beijing’s range of regional and global activities include a strategy whereby it uses “coordinated, whole -of-government tools to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan.” This strategy aims at establishing Chinese supremacy at global level. China, as the report assesses,

“.. will continue pursuing its goals of becoming a great power, securing what it views as its territory, and establishing its preeminence in regional affairs by building a world -class military, potentially destabilizing international norms and relationships. China’s military commitment includes a multiyear agenda of comprehensive military reform initiatives. We expect the PLA to continue pursuing overseas military installations and access agreements to enhance its ability to project power and protect Chinese interests abroad. The PLA Navy and PLA Air Force are the largest in the region and continue to field advanced long-range platforms that improve China’s ability to project power.”

As far as Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is concerned, the report assesses that “China will continue the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history intending to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade and to field a nuclear triad.” The US also envisages intense competition with China in space and cyber security.

While the report makes a similar assessment of what it derisively calls “Russian proactive actions”, the report’s true significance lies in rebutting the Joe Biden administration, which was seen by many political pundits in the West as the harbinger of a new age of cooperation between the US and China in the post-Trump era. The assessment makes it clear that the Joe Biden administration will be more inclined to prepare for a ‘new age of conflict’ with China, and resist Chinese efforts to target what the said report describes as “key technology sectors and proprietary commercial and military technology from the US and allies companies and research institutions associated with defense, energy, finances, and other sectors.”

The report broadly echoes what transpired in Antony Blinken’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart in the Anchorage in March where he raised his country’s “deep concerns” over China’s global and regional strategies, including towards Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and Beijing’s cyberattacks and its economic coercion towards the US allies. Blinken’s remarks were followed by a 16 minute long speech by China’s top diplomat in which he unsparingly denounced the US as a bully, racist and a hypocritical state protecting its own hegemony at the expense of what China calls a ‘community of shared interests and destiny.’

The fierce exchange of comments at diplomatic level symbolised what has now already turned into a ‘new age of conflict’ at military, economic, political and technological levels. The Anchorage meeting thus largely set the tone for a massive expansion of Trump’s ‘trade war’ with China into a broad conflict involving all aspects of modern state craft.

What makes this ‘age of conflict’ more dangerous than Trump’s ‘trade war’ is that the Biden administration has been relatively more successful than the Trump administration in cobbling together allies against China. The recently held G7 summit illustrates how the US is already quickly regaining its [lost] position to be able to shape and control Western discourse vis-à-vis China.

The fact that the Joe Biden administration has expanded Trump’s ‘trade war’ also reflects a broad bi-partisan consensus that today exists in the US vis-à-vis China whereby both parties see China as a global competitor that needs to be tackled effectively, including through ways that involve cold war like alliances, such as the QUAD (Australia, India, Japan and the US).

The bi-partisan consensus on tackling and resisting China’s rise as an economic, military and technological super-power is nothing more than what could be called a typical response of an old superpower suffering from hegemonic fatigue. China’s response at the Anchorage shows that Beijing’s ability to assert in the face of US bullying has increased manifold, and that it will continue to defy the US unilateralism not only through its own internally generated economic, military and technological capacity, but also through cooperation with Russia, which in turn is also an additional cause of worry for the US (as indicated in the said intelligence assessment).

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: