Earlier this month, the U.S. imposed visa
restrictions on the Chinese journalists working in the country, limiting their
work period to 90 days
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 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…”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
* Dr. Stanly Johny is the International Affairs
Editor of The Hindu. He earned a PhD in international studies from Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi. He has reported for The Hindu group from
Brussels, Luxembourg City, Moscow, Singapore, Amman,
Ramallah and Tel Aviv.