The nature of the US-China rivalry can be defined more dispassionately
Out of the variety of global issues brought to the foreground due to the recent G7 and NATO summits, the US-China rivalry is among the most prominent ones. Biden’s vision to unite the West against China is starting to take shape through the multilateral tools that his predecessor disregarded. As this is unfolding, plenty of global headlines referred to the rivalry as the “New Cold War” between the USA and China.
The greatest American rival is China nowadays. No question about it. The rising power from the East challenges the -already damaged- US global influence, raising further fears for a broader dispute that could potentially entangle the whole world. However, an extravagant term such as the “New Cold War” is probably out of place to describe the US-China rivalry.
The original Cold War
Perhaps the most notable feature of the period 1945-1991 is the division of the international system into spheres of influence. The two superpowers, the US and the USSR, built a robust structure of military alliances and proxy wars dominated the global scene. Every time the so-called “balance of terror” was disrupted, a vital issue arose for the superpowers’ struggle for hegemony.
But the spheres of influence were not only geostrategic in nature. The countries of the Western bloc established both political and economic relations only with each other. Similarly, the Eastern bloc did the same. In other words, there was a nature of exclusivity in the relations of the allied states. When there were deviations from this practice, particularly in the first hard bipolar years, American and Soviet concerns intensified.
It is also important not to forget that the Cold War had strong ideological characteristics. The US and the USSR were not just trying to dominate over each other in a zero-sum game. They had specific political perspectives on how the world should function and did not hesitate to exercise massive propaganda for this cause. At the same time, within this context, the image and the narrative of the opponent had to be obliterated by every means both at home and abroad.
The “New Cold War”
Let’s examine now if all of the above apply to the US-China rivalry.
For the time being, the two great powers do not clash through proxies. They choose to compete directly with each other. Whether it is the trade war of previous years or the technological race that is about to dominate the future, the US and China are in direct conflict. At the same time, the geostrategic network of alliances that the US has built over the years cannot be matched with any Chinese equivalent.
On the other hand, global political and economic exclusiveness within allies seems impossible to implement. The world is more integrated than ever through the structures of globalization, especially compared to the Cold War period. This does not mean, of course, that the US and China are not trying to establish stronger interdependence with the other states. After all, just a few days ago the American leadership announced a plan to halt the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The point is that these efforts are aiming at increasing their own power rather than focusing on intercepting the enemy, at least as we have seen it through the Cold War.
Now, in the field of ideological competition, it is clear that mostly the US is trying to attribute such a nature to the conflict. American foreign policy speaks of a conflict between “democracy” and “autocracy” in order to strengthen its narrative. In reality, however, China is not interested in exporting its regime ideology. Chinese foreign policy does not seek to establish the country as an exponent of authoritarianism on a global scale. On the contrary, the US attempted to become an exponent of the illiberal democracies during the Trump period (Brazil and Malaysia the most blatant examples). And of course, many developing countries when they are in dire need of infrastructures will not care whether the investments come from authoritarian regimes or not.
Then, what is is?
Obviously, a real Cold War in the context of US-China rivalry is not unlikely to emerge in the long run. But right now, there is only a misuse of the term in news headlines, sparking a debate without much substance.
The original Cold War arose through the destruction of World War II in the absence of an established world order. In our case, China emerges to challenge the structure of the existing order, in which, in theory at least, the US holds the primacy. That is why the theoretical model of the Thucydides Trap has been developed – whether it is a solid theory is another discussion – trying to explain such a phenomenon.
Therefore, we are dealing with great powers that compete on a number of issues (trade, tech firms, cyberspace, human rights in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan autonomy and so on and so forth) and are powerful poles in the international system. We are not dealing with a total conflict at every level and every aspect of global politics which dictates both the structure of the international system and the status of the other actors depending on which camp they choose.
Fancy definitions need to wait, no matter how significant this rivalry may be.