US-China rivalry: Is a new cold war really emerging?

by Ali Aslan for AA

US President Joe Biden’s biggest promise on foreign policy during the campaign trail was to revive the liberal international order. Biden has so far taken a few steps in this direction. He has brought the US back into the Paris Agreement. He has restored his country’s membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Human Rights Council. On the other hand, he has made some important moves toward establishing closer relations with Asian and European allies. This resurgence of institutionalism, however, is not limited to the fulfillment of US commitments to Asian and European allies that were broken during Trump’s presidency, nor to the country’s reconnection with international institutions. It also includes integrating powers capable of competing with the US, and especially China, into the liberal institutional order. This would obviously be a strategic move and would not mark the end of the US-China rivalry. The US needs to cut China in on the rewards of the liberal international order, and China, in exchange, must accept US leadership and obey the norms and rules that constitute this order. The US, understandably, wants to wage its (now inevitable) hegemonic struggle with China on its own terms. The US reckons that it could thus fend off China’s rise before it becomes an open challenge or without triggering a cold/hot conflict, or at the very least that it could avoid a sharp and rapid downfall by protracting its relative decline against China. And, most fundamentally, the US is expected to maintain its leadership status in international politics for a little while longer.

Institutions and power

That international institutions play a decisive role in interstate affairs means that power politics and conflict give way to economic cooperation and multilateralism. This is also aimed at persuading states to build institutional structures to restrain themselves, and thus eliminating any possibilities of mutual distrust and conflict brought on by anarchy. This situation usually ensues from the emergence of clear supremacy in favor of one of the opposing sides following a major war. The institutional order is then embraced by the losing side to avoid buckling under heavy punishments, as well as by the victor to perpetuate its dominance, or, in other words, to extend its rule and make it less costly. These were precisely the circumstances that arose as a result of the Second World War. A liberal international order was built under US leadership, and many countries outside the Soviet sphere of influence became integrated into it.

After more than half a century, US President Donald Trump attempted to render this order dysfunctional by turning his back on it. His rationale was that institutional structures had been harming US interests. According to Trump, the very institutions that were supposed to protect US interests had actually been undermining US power and stacking the deck in favor of its rivals. It was not for nothing that the Chinese government stated at the time that they were “expecting the United States to remain faithful to the liberal international order,” which was very ironic. Trump kept advocating that the current security regime, and especially NATO, was costing the US disproportionately. It was, however, neither reasonable nor possible to scrap a long-established institution like NATO at the drop of a hat. For this reason, the Trump administration kept bringing up the need for their European allies to step up to the plate, economically and militarily. Their European allies were, on the other hand, firing salvos at the Trump administration, claiming that the “brain death of NATO” had already occurred. The situation on the economic front was no different. On the one hand, the US was running trade deficits with China due to the current trade regime and gradually losing its technological superiority. Markets dominated by companies operating on a global scale, on the other hand, were weakening US economic interests. The US government was collecting less taxes, its domestic companies’ competitive capabilities were eroding, production was falling, and unemployment was increasing. Under the given circumstances, according to Trump, an economically nationalist and isolated America untrammeled by institutional structures could do better.

Trump’s critical and distrustful attitude towards institutional structures was something any other realist politician would display. Trump, a realist, assessed the relationship between institutional structures and power in a different light than liberals. Liberals saw institutions as structures independent of and neutral to states while realists considered them as structures that should, instead, be serving the interests of the most powerful state under the leadership of that state itself. Liberals accord considerable sovereignty to institutions. They view them as mechanisms that counterbalance state sovereignty’s potential to sabotage the economic space. They regard it as a reasonable medium operating between the impossible-to-establish “world government” and the “anarchical order”, which gives the state and politics plenty of space. For realists, sovereignty in international politics unconditionally belongs to the state and must remain so. Liberals believe that institutions carry a potential for reining in international anarchy while also softening (or even transcending) power politics. Realists, on the other hand, believe that institutions should not have a constraining effect against the strongest state. In fact, if an institution has become an impediment to the strongest state, it must be ignored and cast aside, because power — not institutions or anything else — is the truly decisive element in international politics.

Realism, liberalism, and grand strategy

This fundamental divide naturally results in the US employing various strategies against China, a state with the potential to pose a threat and a challenge to US leadership. A US president with liberal views, such as Biden, is expected to employ a strategy that not only seeks to incorporate China into the liberal institutional order but in the meantime offers its adversary some leeway and flexibility commensurate with its strength. It would be appropriate to call this a “win-win” formula focused on emphasizing common interests. Realists like Trump, however, do not like this formula. They are more concerned with relative gains. They care about differences, not commonalities. They consider even the slightest gain obtained by an opponent to be a loss. Accordingly, the US strategy towards China is to disrupt the international institutional order that enabled China to thrive in the first place and to contain China by a variety of means, including the use of force.

Trump remained true to his principles and, despite all the criticism, followed this realist strategy to a large extent. Biden came to power by criticizing Trump’s realist strategy, especially towards China. He vowed to alleviate the tensions heightened by the Trump administration against China (and also Iran) and to find non-military ways to resolve the disputes with these countries. However, the strained relations with China recently show that Biden will follow Trump’s course, which he had criticized heavily. In fact, considering the statements and moves made so far, it could even be said that the Biden administration will pursue an even more confrontational and exclusionary strategy against China than the Trump administration.

The March 12 meeting of the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QUAD), which consists of the US, India, Australia, and Japan and is regarded by some experts as an “Asian NATO”, was a good example of this. The most striking part of the statement made following the summit was that the “vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” had brought these four countries together. This vision first emerged at the October 2020 summit hosted by Japan. This time, however, it was expressed more forcefully. In addition, the closing statement of the summit promised to fight for a regional order that was “free, transparent, inclusive, healthy, rooted in democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”​. One can easily see that China is being intimidated here. The QUAD, which could be traced back to the early 2000s, was revitalized during Trump’s term, beginning in 2017. The leaders of these four countries met a total of five times between 2017 and 2019. Joint military exercises have also been held within the scope of this initiative. Military drills conducted initially between the US and India developed by 2020 into a demonstration of military strength against China involving all four countries.

A war of words occurred, yet again, between the foreign ministry officials of the US and China who met in Alaska two weeks ago. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about human rights violations against Uyghur Turks in China’s Xinjiang region, anti-democratic activities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, cyberattacks targeting the US, and economic pressures on US allies. Blinken emphasized that all of these practices were threatening the rules-based international order, that is, the liberal international order. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, on the other hand, replied by saying that the US could no longer lecture China arrogantly and that those days were long gone. It was quite meaningful that, among the Chinese public, the Alaska meetings were compared to the humiliating Boxer Protocol signed in 1901 between China and the Eight-Nation Alliance, which was made up of the US and some prominent European countries. It was indicative of how the progress made by China in international politics was received by the Chinese population and how the increasing material capacity has strongly boosted the psychological confidence. In addition, Chinese officials stated that the US was trying to disrupt China’s lawful trade relations with third countries by portraying them differently through the rhetoric of national security and to get certain countries to attack China, and expressed concern about the situation.

Missionary liberalism

The current situation clearly contradicts hopes of a softening in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential elections. This leads to debates over whether the US-China relations would devolve into a new cold war. So, we must ask, what happened to cause the Biden administration to abandon the liberal institutionalist strategy toward China that it had vowed to pursue before the election? There are two possible explanations for this. The first is liberalism’s hypocrisy in international politics. Liberalism, on the one hand, has a pragmatist, soft and inclusive side that emphasizes international institutions and cooperation, and on the other, an ideological, harsh, and exclusionary side that does not shy away from shaping the world in its own image. The missionary viewpoint of the latter portrays politics as the clash of morally unequal political actors, that is, a clash between the good and the evil. In this regard, they moralize the image of realists’ power relations and confrontational international politics and carry them into the existentialist dimension, closing the doors to pluralism. The US’ attitude towards China (and all other states), as well as its patronizing, moralizing, and peremptory language, stems from liberalism, the country’s founding ideology. Hence, as the ideological dimension of liberalism gains clout, the Biden administration distances itself from the liberal institutional strategy.

So, how is the dark and ideological dimension of liberalism increasing its influence? The second statement would answer this: It is not possible for the US to restrain China by integrating it into its institutional order. As China grows stronger and the US leadership is called into question, the use of exclusionary language associated with liberal ideology becomes more prevalent. Trump realized this and did not pursue a liberal institutionalist strategy. He went for a realistic one. Biden, on the other hand, portrayed this as a weakness during his election campaign and used it against Trump. However, since the same political realities prevail, the Biden administration had to employ a similar strategy, but certainly with a significant difference: Trump’s anti-China language made sense on the axis of nationalism, and a hierarchical relationship was not envisaged because China was being portrayed as a threat. The Biden administration, on the other hand, adopts a hierarchical attitude that attempts to discipline China while being anti-China. Neither of these courses of action is quite acceptable or rational in international politics. However, the discourteous attitude of the Biden administration has the potential to escalate international competition to dangerous levels. It is no coincidence that people are speculating about a new cold war. Beyond global bipolarity, the most distinctive feature of the Cold War was the intense ideological division and mutual marginalization. This situation brought the competition to an existential level, and the threats coming from the competitors began to appear more dangerous than they actually were, resulting in a harsh security dilemma. These events demonstrate an inconsistency and conflict on the part of the Biden administration. Nowadays, newspapers are rife with criticism from leftist groups as well as public intellectuals — who we might call liberals in the American context — resented by the Biden administration reneging on its election promises.

Future of US leadership

But, can the Biden administration smoothly sustain its current policy against China, which combines realism and liberal ideological strategies? The answer to this question depends on how other states in the international system will view and respond to the US-China power balance in the long run. In international politics, just as states can form an alliance that would balance out the state that wants to reform the existing order, that is, to revise the system as the underdog, they can also choose to partner with the revisionist state in order to reap the benefits of the new order. It is impossible to predict whether states will favor maintaining the status quo or a revision.

Today, we see that some states in East and Southeast Asia are attempting to counterbalance China by containing it with the US. The revival of the QUAD and attempts to turn it into a more serious platform is a sign of this. However, we also see that European countries are not necessarily responding positively to the US calls to strengthen their alliance relations. On the one hand, the view that acting together with China would create more economic opportunities is gaining momentum in Europe, while, on the other, that a rapprochement with the US would inevitably lead to a more confrontational relationship with Russia.

Considering Europe’s dependence on Russia, especially for natural gas, US calls for strengthening their alliance are not receiving a robust response. In addition to these two reasons, the actual deciding factor is that the decline in US power is recognized by European states, which then think that administrations akin to Trump’s, which are more likely to leave Europe alone, will come to power in the US in the future. In this case, it is understandable why European states are reluctant to take a clear stance in the US-China conflict. In addition, it also causes other states within the system to steer a more cautious course in their dealings with the US, since a bipolar international system would provide them with more advantages and latitude. It also whets their appetite for Chinese overtures to them.

What all of these developments are telling us is that it is too early to say that a new cold war has begun. We cannot, however, let it go unsaid that, given past experiences, the conditions of “hegemonic war” — the division of the system into status quoist and revisionist blocks, the uncertainty of alliance relations, and the normalization of the use of military power — observed during periods of international system transformations, are becoming more prominent by the day.

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