If a new cold war starts!
“There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen”, says Vladimir Lenin. The world was going with its usual business, and then something terrible happened that gave everything a halt. No technology had predicted Covid-19, no Sufi had dreamt of it and no country had prepared for it. In art, movies and literature, there were predictions and clues, but they were only ways of mental amusement. Immediately after scientists disclosed that a new virus was spreading from a Chinese city, Wuhan, panic broke out.
Universities, schools, colleges, markets, holy places, cinema houses, parks, industries and other places of mass-gathering were shut down. The virus had and still has impact on everything under the sun. A period of unusual affairs began. What had long been considered mandatory became necessary to avoid; shaking hands, hugging, sitting close, visiting friends and family members, and having meals together turned out to be ‘unethical’ practices, at least for a period.
However, it is the shift in international environment that is more alarming and threatening as we already have a considerable degree of familiarity with the changes and the ‘new normal’ inside Pakistan. Multipolar world order looks like it is infected with a virus of insanity, hatred and xenophobia. In the wake of Covid-19, we saw how Trump blamed China and China blamed Trump for the outbreak of the pandemic, sparking a series of verbal exchanges that escalated the spread of baseless conspiracy theories.
It appears that the seeds of international conflicts were clandestinely growing in the anarchic but fertile field of international relations. A trade war had already been happening between China and the USA. In 2018, Trump decided to set tariffs and other trade barriers on China with the intention that China might be forced to become flexible in what the US called “unfair trade practices”. Unlike Democrats, the Republican Party president has been a staunch advocate of trade barriers and economic nationalism since 1980s.
However, the USA reduced tariffs on China by signing a trade deal with the latter in January 2020 in which China agreed to purchase the US products by at least $200 billion over the next two years in addition to $130 billion in US goods that China bought in 2017. But this is a story of ordinary times when the world was going with its usual affairs.
An era of extraordinary times has begun after the pandemic gave everything a serious blow. In this era of uncertainty, it is hard to decide what is going to happen next, and, apart from that, international developments are always unpredictable. Yet, it appears that events are going to take a completely different course. After the Chinese Parliament passed the controversial Hong Kong security law last month, dealing what critics have called a “killer blow” to the city’s autonomy and freedom, the US response was harsh and threatening. It could be attributed to the same trade war that was already happening, but the event has a highly political character that can lead, in addition to other conflicts, to serious international disarray.
Even though the virus originated in China, the Chinese authoritative government has been successful to guard the country against the devastating impacts of the virus. The USA, on the other hand, has been hard hit by it. Trump’s failure to recognize the urgency of the moment led not only to a decrease in his reputation in America but made the US economic situation uncertain as well. If Trump succeeds to win the coming election, his frustration and pent-up aggression might direct the US foreign policy in a more attacking manner against China. This may be the advent of another cold war.
The escalatory global situation is marked by a tension that explains what is happening beneath. The USA stopped funding to the WHO, accusing the latter of being too cosy with China. In an interview to Fox Business Channel, Trump raised the prospect of a complete detachment between the two economies, saying “We could cut off the whole relationship [with China]. Now if you did, what would happen? We’d save $500 billion.” This is a radical suggestion to make, but the possibility of its triggering power cannot be ignored.
The fall-out from two decades of war and financial crisis made America borrow money from China that gave unprecedented confidence to how China was successfully moving ahead. The impact of wars intensified polarized politics in America, leaving her unguided in economic policies. This polarization in American politics can easily transform into polarization in international politics as it has been a common practice with states to divert people’s attention from national issues through drawing their attention to the threat of foreign enemies. This is even more true of populist leaders like Trump.
The Americans believe that the China’s Road and Belt Initiative is a shrewd move to win the support of countries like Pakistan by initiating not only their projects there but by convincing them to applaud how Chinese do things. This view may not have a direct ideological character, but it is apparent that the Americans are worried about a possible Asian block. The concept of so-called Asian values, declared in Bangkok in 1993, suggests how the possibility of a conflict between Asia and the West (America) has always lurked behind the scenes. In an intensified conflict, many things that have always seemed non-existent can surprisingly come into surface.
No doubt, the USA is still the world’s most powerful state in terms of military strength, technology, geography and weapons, with the highest military spending, and is still the world’s largest economy. China may not be in any position to confront the USA in a direct military conflict: the former is temperamentally not open to engagements that the latter has always confidently pursued - the Gulf War, War on Terror, Iraq War and small-scale military tussles with Iran. Moreover, China’s sole priority has been economic development, and she has successfully achieved it since the economic reforms in 1977, following Moa’s death, with an average GDP Growth of 9.5%.
Cold war, unlike conventional warfare, is more a war of economy than military efficiency. The end of last cold war demonstrates how important economy is in maintaining long-term deterrence. Gorbachev’s economic reforms led to a complete fiasco in economy as well as foreign military adventures. Lack of sustained growth in economy led to the USSR’s disintegration in 1991, and the cold war formally ended.
Sustainable growth in economy enables countries to survive during extreme crisis and disasters. China’s economy has shown that it has the capacity to resist the contagious effects of economic failures in other parts of the world. Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 and the global financial crisis 2008 were two events that demonstrated the resilience of Chinese economy. In the latter case, China even helped to put the global economy on the path of recovery. The Corona pandemic could be another relevant example even though its impact is far from being fully calculated yet.
In addition to the devastating impact of Covid-19, the USA is confronted with other internal and external challenges, the most recent one being the anti-racial protests across America in response to the death of a black American, George Floyd, by a police cope. The protests may subdue gradually, thanks to American democracy that does not let the oppressed get frustrated enough to rebel, despite there being many examples of racial discrimination and persecution; however, the protests have brought into surface the critical outlook of many Americans on American foreign policy, especially in Middle East. Be it Afghan War, the USA’s support of Israel, its handling of Iran, the American public won’t stay silent.
It doesn’t appear that international relations are stained up to an extent that a major conflict is inevitable; yet, there are many reasons to think that post-Covid-19 world won’t be the same. Obvious developments prompt us to worry about a possible conflict between China and the USA that will (if it occurs) put Pakistan in a challenging situation. However, international political structure is not a pre-given reality. It rests on the beliefs, ideas and convictions held by states and statesmen about each other. Wilson’s dynamic leadership during and after the WWI is an example of how agency can exercise impact on structure. International environment is always disappointing but is contingent too. If statesmen and states acted responsibly, they might turn this disaster into an opportunity that may enable them to cooperate interdependently in order to avoid not only conflicts but another epidemic like Covid-19 also.
The writer is an academic, poet and critic and has deep interest in literature, philosophy and history.