Is Sino-US rivalry a 'clash of civilizations'?

May 16, 2019 18:09
A new Cold War between the US and China is looming large on the horizon. Photo: Reuters

The continued melting of sea ice in the Arctic as a result of accelerating climate change has posed a huge ecological crisis but has also brought new opportunities such as the opening up of new shipping routes.

It is estimated the Arctic route could save a ship up to 20 days when traveling between Asia and Europe.

As such, the great powers are now aggressively eyeing the enormous business and strategic opportunities presented by the situation. China, in a white paper on its Arctic policy released in January 2018, proposed the idea of establishing a “Polar Silk Road”.

Since the Arctic Ocean is considered international waters, all countries are entitled to the freedom of navigation in the area – theoretically speaking.

However, as a member state of the Arctic Council, the United States is apparently highly vigilant against Beijing’s ambitious Arctic claims.

And when speaking at a recent ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council held in Finland, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo made a highly provocative accusation against China, which was attending the event as an observer state.

In his speech, Pompeo openly called into question China’s claim that it is a "Near-Arctic State", a status which, according to Beijing, would make it a key player in the region.

“There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” Pompeo said.

The US official also warned of Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the Arctic, asking, "Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?"

While Pompeo was denying Beijing’s claim to the Arctic, he also set out the US’s new strategic blueprint in the region.

“Under President Trump, we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area. On the security side, partly in response to Russia’s destabilizing activities, we are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military,” he declared.

Apparently, in our opinion, Pompeo was holding a double standard against Beijing: while US warships are sailing across the South China Sea, China’s growing presence in the Arctic Ocean is, according to Pompeo’s notion, giving rise to territorial claims.

In fact, not all member states of the Arctic Council were happy with Washington’s stance on the issue, which probably explains why for the first time since 1996, the ministerial meeting failed to announce a joint communique.

The main reason is that some delegates were dissatisfied with the fact that the US was totally avoiding the issue of climate change throughout the meeting, which is actually a major concern among other member states, not to mention that Pompeo was also downplaying the global implications of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

Even though Pompeo’s accusations against China were both flimsy and unconvincing, they did send a clear message to the world: from now on, the US is no longer regarding China as a respectable competitor, but rather, a deadly nemesis which it is determined to go to any lengths to contain.

As a matter of fact, Sino-US rivalry is no longer confined to trade issues alone, and is now rapidly spreading into virtually all other strategic areas.

At the end of last month at a public forum, Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning with the US State Department, referred to the ongoing Sino-US conflict as a “clash of civilizations” because, as he put it, "It's the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian".

In other words, a new Cold War between the US and China is looming large on the horizon. And a more worrisome question is, is this coming Cold War likely to escalate into an all-out hot war?

It appears the conventional thinking that the US and China are always able to disagree without being disagreeable might no longer stand.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal