It will be quite
different from the one with the Soviet Union
While the Coronavirus has rightly taken much of our
attention, a fundamental geopolitical realignment has been taking shape in the
world, and it will become clearer in 2021. The realignment is the start of a
Second Cold War, which hopefully will not become a ‘hot’ war. The new Cold War
will be between China and the West, but it will be quite different from the one
with the Soviet Union. The world has changed significantly since 1989, the year
of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The gap between the two opposing camps is now much smaller.
The Soviet Union, a military giant with little industrial development, had the
advantage of presenting itself as the champion of an international ideology.
This was somehow also a flag of the West, which made the call for freedom and
democracy its identity. Today, China harbors no real international flag, and
the West is besieged by internal contradictions, from the battle of illiberal
democracies such as Hungary under Viktor Orban to the nationalist, xenophobic,
populist waves running in every country and the dramatic increase of social
inequality and degradation of jobs, quality of life, and perspectives about the
future. All this makes the Western banner much less forceful than after the
Second World War. Today, it would be probably impossible to create the United
Nations or adopt the Declaration of Human Rights, because of the current
fragmentation of the world.
In the meantime, China is experiencing an industrial,
scientific and technological development that was never in the reach of the
Soviet Union. Finally, let us add the demographic factor: China, with its 1.4
billion people, has a very different strength from the 291 million the USSR had
in 1989. Russia has now shrunk to 147 million: much less than Nigeria’s 208
million, not to mention Pakistan’s 220 million.
This new Western alliance is taking place without many
noticing. NATO is no longer dealing with the North Atlantic, as by its
constitution, and the mighty Soviet military power is not as significant in
today’s Russian Federation.
In his unsophisticated drive to make the United States not
dependent on any other country, even if a historical ally, Donald Trump took
his distance from NATO. President Macron has described NATO as “brain dead”.
And Europe has discovered that living under the American shield could be a
So, the current European Commission has embarked on a strong
policy to make Europe a competitive international player, giving priority in
investments to green technology, artificial intelligence, digital development,
reinforcement of European patents, and curbing the unchecked power of American
Big Tech. And now that Great Britain has left the European Union, some of the
divides of the 28 (now 27), like that of European defense are gone. There is
even an allotment of eight billion dollars for the embryo of a European army,
which of course pales in comparison with the 732 billion of the United States.
However, few noticed that in November NATO Secretary-General
Jens Stoltenberg chaired a group of experts, which recommended, without
opposition, that the first task of the Alliance would be to answer to the
threat coming from the “systematic rivals” of Russia and China. To include
China in the center of NATO’s agenda is a such change that it means reinventing
completely the transatlantic alliance.
The old terms of the Cold War are coming back, like old
barrels with new content. The final document calls for “coexistence”, the need
to maintain military and technological superiority, establish new treaties for
control of armaments and no to the proliferation of advanced weapons. It also
underlines that there are fields for cooperation, from trade to climate
The Trump period has been an unexpected bonus for China.
Barack Obama had made great efforts to create an Asian trade agreement – the
Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which would exclude China and included
Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru,
Singapore, Vietnam and the United States. It was signed on 4 February 2016. In
January 2017, Trump took the presidency and promptly withdrew from the treaty.
Partly this had to do with his obsession of undoing whatever Obama had done,
but it was also because of his strong belief that US should not enter any treaty
because this would condition the US, which could benefit more from bilateral
relations, in which the US would always be the big boy in the room. “America
first” in fact meant “America alone”.
The result is that for four years China has been able to act
as the champion of multilateralism, of climate control, while for the US it was
simply a question of tariffs with its policy focused on Chinese exports. China
has basically been able to duck the issue, and the trade balance between
Beijing and Washington is more imbalanced in favor of China than ever before.
Trump engaged in some fight against 5G and Huawei, but made little secret of
admiration for strongmen, from Kim Jong-un to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
And, during those four years, China has been able to
continue its program of global expansion. Not only on its famous project – the
Silk Road – with open connections for its trade with the world; but also on
establishing the biggest trading bloc in history: the Regional Comprehensive
Economic Partnership (RCEP) which destroyed any trace of the TPP, which had
excluded China. RCEP is based on China, and the United States is out. The
treaty was signed in November 2020, and Trump was so obsessed with his theory
about fraud in the US presidential election that he did not even comment. But
the RCEP has 15 member countries: Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China,
Indonesia, Japan, Laos. Malaya, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines,
Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The bloc has 30 percent of the
world’s population (2.2 billion), and 30 percent of the world’s GDP (26.2
trillion dollars). Only India, which is under the authoritarian and xenophobic
leadership of Narendra Modi, remained out, complaining that it would be invaded
by cheap Chinese products. But in fact, India is poising itself as the regional
alternative to China, even if it is far behind in economic and technological
terms. But it is a young country, with 50 percent of its population under the
age of 25 years, while in China it is only 31 percent.
Asia is projected to become by far the most important
geopolitical and economic area of the world. According to the McKinsey
consulting company, in 2040 it will account for 50 percent of world trade, and
40 percent of the total consumption of goods and services.
Europe, and also the United States, are convinced that they
can compete with China, and avoid it becoming a world power. But this means a
total realignment of international relations, and in particular, a new alliance
between Europe and the United States, and a policy, as during the Cold War, of
shaping a group of countries that are willing to side with the West. China will
carry out the same policy, and we will certainly see a new group of nonaligned
countries as a reaction to the conflict. For instance, in this moment, an
influential group of academics and diplomats is campaigning in Latin America
for the region to remain nonaligned in the coming conflict.
The December issue of Foreign Affairs, the most
influential space for American debate on international issues, has come out
with an essay entitled Competition with China Could Be short and Sharp, in
which it openly speaks of a possible armed conflict in the next ten years. The
authors see a strong quickening of competition in the near future and see
several handicaps for China. The first, its lack of democracy, which is going
to insulate China (at this moment it is doubtful that the US, with Trump as a
beacon and an example, will be credible). Then, more substantially, is that
China’s window of opportunity is closing fast. “Since 2007, China’s annual
economic growth has dropped by more than half, and productivity by 10 percent.
Meanwhile, debt has ballooned eightfold and is on pace to become 335 percent by
the end of the year. China has little hope of reversing those trends because it
will lose 200 million working-age adults and will gain 300 million senior
citizens in 30 years. Meanwhile, global anti-China sentiments have soared to
levels not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Nearly a dozen
countries have suspended or canceled participation in the Belt and Road
Initiative (BRI) project. Another 16 countries, including eight of the world’s
largest economies, have banned or severely restricted the use of Huawei
products in their 5G networks. India has been turning hard against China since
a clash on their shared border killed 20 soldiers in June. Japan has ramped up
military spending, turned amphibious ships into aircraft carriers, and strung
missile launchers along with the Ryukyu Islands, near Taiwan. The European
Union has labeled China a “systemic rival”, and the United Kingdom, France and
Germany are sending naval patrols to counter Beijing’s expansion in the South
China Sea and the Indian Ocean. On multiple fronts, China is facing the blowback
created by its own behavior”.
It is interesting to see how American intelligence is
prisoner of a sense of superiority. China, thanks also to Trump, has been able
to acquire at least a foothold everywhere. Of course, they do not have the 1176
military bases that Washington has all over the world, but they are working on
that. Anyhow, the Foreign Affairs essay recommends urgently
increasing the defenses of Taiwan which, after Hong Kong, is the last piece of
China not under Beijing. And they make the point that war is quite possible in
a short space of time, possibly within ten years. However, with time, “the
possibility of a war might fade, as the United States shows that Beijing cannot
overturn the existing order by force, and Washington gradually grows more
confident in its ability to outperform a slowing China”.
It is difficult to follow the American conviction that the
world is theirs and that Pax Americana is immutable. In fact, in the 16th century
the United States did not exist and, according to most economists, China
accounted for 50 percent of the world’s GDP. Now Chinese technological
development is on the verge of overtaking the US. According to the World Bank,
in terms of buying power, China had already overtaken the US last year. Chinese
currency and gold reserves are double those of the US. What is true is that
within ten years we will have an enormous development of Artificial
Intelligence, and for the time being the US looks to have the advantage. But
the latest developments in AI all point to autolearning systems. And in that
sense, the quantity of data makes the difference, and China has double the
number of people than the US and Europe together.
But why would China be tempted to start a war against the
US? It would unsettle a system based on trade, where China is by far the
biggest winner. It would be an exceedingly difficult war to win because the
scale of operations would dwarf the Chinese military. And how could the US
launch a war against China? Once aerial bombing is done, (unless it goes
atomic, which is the sure recipe for the destruction of the planet), you have
to put, as military jargon has it, boots on land. Is invading China thinkable?
So, it would be important to discourage any escalation, and
not only for the next ten years. War is always a danger because human
stupidity, as Einstein said, is as limitless as the universe. The same authors
of the Foreign Affairs essay recall the First World War, as something
that should never have happened. But signs of an escalation continue. Last
week, former NATO Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave an interview, in which
he said that NATO must win the technological battle against China. And the National
Security Advisor-designate for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, Jake
Sullivan, has just made an appeal to the European Union, seeking solidarity
with the United States and not subscribing to any commercial agreement with
China. The Second Cold War is coming…
– Article published by Wall Street
International on DECEMBER 29, 2020 and distributed by OtherNews on 12/30/2020
*Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio
is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator,
activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti-neoliberal
global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center
for Peace and Development. Adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global
Cooperation Council. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news
agency and its President Emeritus.