Someone has already used the Chinese expression “Same bed, different dreams” to describe the relationship between PRC and U.S. In my personal interpretation of it, the bed they lie upon is made of economic interests and the dreams they dream are about politics. The economies of the two countries have increasingly become intertwined and interdependent in the last 20 years and, even though now we are witnessing a substantial slowing down of this trend, the trajectory is pretty much the same: U.S. needs Chinese goods to keep its economy going and China needs U.S. cash flows to sustain its financial system. On the other hand, in politics, strong, almost irreconcilable differences have marked the relationship between the two countries. The casual confrontations about human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, interference/non-interference etc… are all different expressions of one core difference which has to do with how China and the U.S. conceive themselves and their role in the world order, their self-representations. This interpretation, already suggested by Lyle Morris in his article “Incompatible Partners”, is far more worrisome because it portrays the differences between the two countries as deriving from their forma mentis, hence presenting the problems in their relationship as pathological.
Thanks to the role inherited from WWII and reinvigorated with the end of the Cold War, America feels it has the right to intervene wherever in the world democracy or liberalism seem to be threatened: it has decided to undertake war in Afghanistan for these ideals, it has intervened via the UN to bring “peace” and “democracy” in far-away places like Cambodia, East Timor and the Balkans, it is now getting closer to China by increasing its military presence in Asia-Pacific where, according to its view, the political stability and commercial routes are at stake.
On the other hand, China has a diametrically opposite stance. During the Century of Humiliation, ended less than 70 years ago, it has learned on itself how it feels like for a nation to lose its sovereignty to foreigners. That wound still hurts. Hence, Beijing’s susceptibility and inflexibility on disputes like Taiwan, South China Sea or East China Sea, which to us look like fanaticism or exaggerated nationalism, from a Chinese perspective perfectly falls within PRC’s rights. Through its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China has set sovereignty and non-interference as core values for its foreign policy and even as a model for international relations by and large, something known as the “Beijing Consensus”.
So, we have the two most powerful countries of the next century with contrasting world views: one democratic and self-elected as the guarantor of World’s peace and order, the other authoritarian and non-interventionist. Two different world orders, one American and the other non-American, are confronted. Can we talk about a new Cold War?
Just consider the following facts:
- The recent China – U.S. cyberwar and cyber espionage debate. (One worth-reading article about it is Mandiant’s “Exposing one of China’s Cyber Espionage Units”)
- U.S. and China’s competition for winning influence in Myanmar, which is now apparently favouring U.S.
- Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia (his first official visit). When talking about the “Clash of Civilizations”, Huntington referred to Russia as a borderline civilization, which could be drawn into the European or the Asian sphere of influence. In last years, Moscow has shown a clear propensity towards Europe, but this doesn’t mean that it could change in the future, especially if we consider European Union’s internal (economic) crisis. Beijing, by gaining the Kremlin’s trust, would gain a lot of leverage in central Asia, too.
- The next visit on Xi Jinping’s agenda: Africa. It is there that the “Beijing Consensus” has exercised its deepest influence.
- Two different trade agreements which are in the process of being formed in the Asia-Pacific region. One, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would include China and not the U.S. ; the other, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would include U.S. and not China. Several reassurances have come from both sides, saying that joining one organization won’t compromise the membership to the other (ASEAN secretary Le Luong Minh even said he sees the two as mutually reinforcing) but there’s still a lot of open questions to be sure of that.
- U.S. has just signed an agreement with South Korea in which it promises a major involvement in case of attacks by DPRK. A move that Beijing will probably feel uneasy to cope with, especially if seen in relation to American increased presence in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
We can therefore see some features of a Cold War already outlined: PRC and the U.S. seem to be struggling to gain their sphere of influence and a silent battle, made on the internet rather than on the field, is being fought.
To be fair, a lot of things are different now from the cold war situation between U.S. and U.S.S.R. Even though the differences explained above between China and the U.S. are in a way ideological, the era of a world divided by great ideologies is over. The world now is too globalised and interconnected to be divided into closed ideological blocks. Ideas circulate more freely and rapidly, for those who care enough to look for them. There are now a plethora of actors (academic institutions, think tanks, NGOs…) which encourage exchange and debate between Western and Chinese counterparts about their pressing issues, thus acting like a bridge that wasn’t there before.
I am not an alarmist or a catastrophist myself: I tend to reject such theories like “The China Threat” and I do not entirely believe ideas like “China Grand Strategy” or the “Beijing Consensus”, especially when they are used to create and foster barriers of suspicion and diffidence. Nevertheless, one common practice (and, to be honest, one of the most fun) in the field of political analysis consists in searching for analogies and comparisons. Considered all the facts listed above regarding the current Sino-American relationship it is impossible not to think about what was going on between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and the rest of the world with them) until 24 years ago.