History has a habit of repeating itself, if not erected. Discourse regarding transition in the world order has been in sight for more than a decade now. What started from pivot (or rebalance) to Asia, has resulted in expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in the Asia Pacific.
Considering the developments in Asia Pacific as a matter of global concern, July 2023 summit of the NATO was for the second time that the key allies of US from the Asia pacific (Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) joined NATO as observer states. Secretary General of NATO not only claimed Asia Pacific states as prime partners, but also declared intention to launch liaison office in Japan.
These developments have raised questions about the scope of as determined by its name (North-Atlantic Treaty Organization), and attracted prompt disapproval from China. Chinese mission to EU (European Union) stated “We firmly oppose and reject this, Any act that jeopardizes China’s legitimate rights and interests will be met with a resolute response.”
Amid all these developments, the question regarding revival of Cold-war has surged up again; Are we receding towards the Cold-war politics, between US and China? In point of fact, world is not likely to recede towards the conventional cold war politics due to certain ostensibly irreversible developments. Consequently, if the situation escalates in future, the dynamics of conflict will be unfamiliar with the history for the following reasons:
Firstly, the existing world order does not have clearly demarcated poles. Alongside the friction between US and China, the conflict staged in eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine has diffused the pivot of western attention. US and its allies are explicitly supporting Ukraine. Position of China, however, is equivocal.
On the one hand, China has tried to dilute the impact of sanctions over Russia by sustaining trade with it, while on the other hand it has raised concerns about the respect of the Sovereignty of states as a universal law, in support of Ukraine. China’s positioning in world affairs, like the case of Russia-Ukraine war, is not ideology bound. Hence, antagonism between US and China is not marked by ideological rivalry, like that of cold-war.
Furthermore, China lacks the advantage of attracting ideology-driven allies, unlike US (Quad; alliance of democracies). Therefore, the world cannot be precisely divided into the American and the Chinese (or the anti-American) blocs, like it did during cold-war.
Secondly, China being the second largest economy of the world, with largest share in global GDP (18.7%), is the largest trading partner of 120 states and largest exporter with 14.7% of share of global exports of goods, has altered the rules of the game. The trade war between US and China as well as the recent friction over the exchange of semiconductor chips, indicates that the theater of the conflict has been shifted to economic and technological spheres.
In October 2022, US imposed tech blockade over China to contain exports of cutting-edge technology to China. China retaliated by blacklisting and banning Us based tech companies, and by restricting exports of germanium and gallium (raw material used for making chips). The impacts of both these developments have reached even the farthest corner of the world, indicating an increase in the cost of conflict. Unlike the conventional proxy-wars of cold-war period, antagonism between US and China will affect the globally integrated web of economic and technological cooperation, altering choices of the states.
Thirdly, great powers are not the only actors in the system, middle powers and small states also have a role to play. During the cold-war, US provided marshal plan for the western European states, so that they could completely rely upon US for their economic and security preferences. In the contemporary realm, nevertheless, the battlefield is Asia Pacific, beyond the western hemisphere.
Furthermore, economic and security preferences of the states are divergent and therefore they are too cautious to pick sides. The closest strategic allies of US in the Asia Pacific are economically integrated with China. US is the top most trading partner of China (trade worth 582.8 billion USD), whereas Japan, South Korea, India and Australia are third, fourth, sixth and thirteenth largest trading partners of China respectively. Considering this deep economic entanglement with China, despite the treat factor due to its rise, isolation or confrontation is not an option for the allies of US residing in Asia Pacific.
Finally, the rise of China is an out product of the Liberal International Order, Chinese economy has benefited from liberal principles of market economy and free-trade, therefore China would not want to over-turn the system entirely. Moreover, China has benefited from the stability maintained by the US, as it has only been able to focus on the economic growth because it did not have to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining stability.
Lastly, China does not even have any alternative ideology or approach to replace the Liberal International Order. during the last decade, restrain on behalf of US created space for China to extend its influence in the domain of global governance. However, the limited institutional order proposed by China in the form of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), does not propose any alternative to the existing Liberal International order. Nonetheless, rise of China cannot be completely denied as a factor reshaping the world order, as AIIB has provided an alternative to IMF and World bank, for the Asian states to rely upon. Chinese voice on the matter of global governance, for instance trade, climate, cyber security, is louder than it has ever been. In addition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) as proposed by Xi Jinping, has appeared to gain some ground of approval in the Middle East, as China has mediated rapprochement between two arch-rivals of the region (Saudi Arabia and Iran).
The expansion of NATO towards the Asia Pacific indicates that US is relying upon traditional approach of countering the eastern challenge. However, the dynamics require revised attention. China, unlike Soviet Union, has excelled in the domain of technology and economy. Expansion of strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific, through Quad (Quadrilateral security dialogue), AUKUS (Australia, United-Kingdom, United States alliance) or NATO, can generate pressure over China but the irreversible evolution of conflict in the domains of economy and technology cannot be contained. Therefore, we are not receding towards the conventional cold-war, but there is a possibility of an un-conventional one.
The future of the un-conventional conflict is likely to be determined by two primary factors; firstly, the practical response of China if the NATO actually inaugurates its liaison office in Japan, will set the tone of conflict. If China use economic coercion or technology politics, the conflict will operate in non-traditional domain, but with wider implications. Secondly, the approach of Asia Pacific states, to strike a balance between their economic and strategic preferences will determine, whether US or China will have the hold in the region. Hence, the international order is currently witnessing a bargain, where both the US and China are trying to maximize their respective shares in shaping the world order that is yet to emerge.
Research Assistant, SVI