A new Cold War between US and China will benefit no one

May 11, 2020 08:29
Photo: Reuters

The writing is on the wall. A new cold war is coming.

In light of the rampant criticisms of its lack of transparency, suppression of information, and ineptitude at communicating the crisis clearly to its constituents, the Beijing administration has turned up its state-sanctioned nationalistic rhetoric and pursued aggressive rebranding – through apparent mask diplomacy – to shield itself from its critics. The recent outburst of anti-black racism in Guangzhou is perhaps a chilling reminder that racism is an ubiquitous phenomenon, yet sadly not universally condemned.

In the meantime, the upcoming Presidential Elections have turned Capitol Hill into a prospective arena for determining which candidate can one-up the other in producing the most hawkish anti-China statements out there. Those eagerly jumping on the bandwagon label the current COVID-19 pandemic as China’s “Chernobyl”, and argue that it is high time for the international community to confront China through economic de-coupling and political aggression.

Gone were the rosy days in the West when it was believed – perhaps naively, perhaps out of the scarred memories over the Cold War – that economic trade, cultural interaction, and diplomatic rhetoric could play a critical role in connecting China with the wider world, and bridging the distance between its government’s stance and democratic norms upheld across the world elsewhere. In place of such sanguine rhetoric is cynicism from both sides, and the firm belief that only through games of brinkmanship could the other party be brought to its knees.

One may not be convinced that this new cold war is a terrible idea.

In response, I suggest turning to Hong Kong for a preview of what this war could well look like. With radical rhetoric flaring-up from both sides – only to be met with stauncher intransigence from Beijing, Hong Kong has been forced into a political cul-de-sac, with no clear path out that does not involve at least some major concessions, if not wishful thinking.

Firstly, Hong Kong indicates that the biggest and foremost victims of any confrontation between the two powers are likely to be those who are the most disenfranchised. From arrested protesters to small and medium enterprises shutting en masse due to the unrest, from those deserted by the exodus of foreign capital to those who struggled under government-imposed lockdowns, the movement that began last year has made little to no impact on the privileged political establishment. Likewise, the claim that harsher economic and political sanctions could alter the way Beijing governs – much as the USSR under Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy – fundamentally neglects the ideologically entrenched nature of top-down, political power in China and the fundamentals of a slowing (albeit fundamentally robust) economy. This argument also overlooks the fact that those who have the most to lose from withdrawal of foreign trade and commercial engagement are, ironically, those who are most sympathetic towards progressive and liberal ideals embodied by the West.

On the flip-side, boycotting China would impose significant costs on the West – particularly industries that these states lack the comparative advantage or the ability to fully decouple from China. We’ve seen this with the trade war, where no one – especially not the farmers or manufacturing sectors – has benefited. Let’s not repeat the mistakes at the expense of those who are thrown under the bus for political point-scoring. Strategic rapprochement – coupled with focussed, tactful negotiation over critical issues – is necessary in reverting our sliding into a mutually destructive conflict.

Secondly, Hong Kong perfectly embodies what would go wrong when all policy areas – including theoretically bipartisan or supposedly uncontroversial issues – are politicised. The Legislative Council is currently paralysed, and debates over how the government budget is best spent have been hijacked by hawks from the Establishment and Pan-Democratic camps keen on spinning the failure to pass policies as the fault of the other side. We have already seen the politicisation of international agencies – such as the World Health Organisation – at China and the USA’s hands: the former, for enshrining its political agenda through extensive lobbying; the latter, in “protesting” infiltration through de-funding the organisation. Who loses out? Neither Washington nor Beijing; neither Trump nor Xi Jinping – but those who are adversely affected by the calamitous consequences of a porous global health regime, an already-inept global response to climate change, and increasingly globalised problems met with reductively inward-looking responses. Should the US and China go to a new cold war, the splintering and division of global politics into antagonistic camps would do no service to some of the greatest challenges humanity has confronted in the past century.

This is not to say we should sit around a fire and sing “Kumbaya” together, thinking that all is well. Clearly there are value disagreements between China and the West that require redressing, and serious problems that must be confronted – as opposed to denied. Yet the solution is neither ignoring what is going on across the world, nor charging head-strong with moralising and self-righteous rhetoric into an apparently futile confrontation. Call me a Dove, but I do not believe the answer to rising concerns over China-West relations is to unequivocally demonise, radicalise, and alienate either of the two parties. The predicaments confronting Hong Kong today should make this fact clear as day.

Finally, the rising identity politics surrounding the Hong Kong issue – in both Mainland and Hong Kong – potently forebodes the dangers of letting nationalistic rhetoric simmer and flourish. Localism is no inherent harm – yet with its rise has seen increasingly anti-Mainland Chinese rhetoric in the city, accompanied by growing anti-Hong Kong sentiments across even the most elite and educated Mainland Chinese citizens across the Shenzhen border. On a far wider scale, hawks in China and the United States alike are inflaming Chinese and American identities in attempt to stall criticisms of their respective handling of the crisis. The displacement of cooler heads is unhelpful – aggressive nationalism paves the way for irrational warfare and conflict, and shuts off any and all room for potential compromise.

Some say war is inevitable, and that is good. I say, war is not something we can afford to have, for it would set back progress – however unsatisfactory, however limited – that has been achieved through the past two decades of normalisation of relations between East and West. War is tempting, but carefully negotiated peace is the only real option.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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