June 28, 2021 | New Cold War Constraints
The beginning of a multi-segment analysis of the core constraints shaping US-China relations and the emerging global order
One of the main themes surrounding US-China relations is whether or not the United States and China are currently in a Cold War.
To some, the idea that we’re in a Cold War is already self-evident. To others, there’s still a chance the world’s two largest economic powers have a chance to avoid the kind of hostile bilateralism that characterized the second half of the 20th century.
What parallels exist between the current state of US-China relations and the US-USSR Cold War from 1947-1991? I don’t have good answers for this, but I’m hoping you do.
One unresolved question is that of agency: does the United States or China have the power to avert a Cold War dynamic unilaterally?
If agency falls with China, then we must ask whether or not Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are capable of fundamentally altering China’s geopolitical course to accommodate the existing world order while simultaneously maintaining their domestic hold on power.
Lately, I’m trying to understand the dynamics involved with the formulation of world orders. To what extent are world orders emergent? And to what extent are world orders a product of conscious decisions between states?
In a 2019 paper, John Mearsheimer defines an order as “an organized group of international institutions that help govern the interactions among member states.” In what ways does the current liberal world order fail to accommodate the interests of the PRC ( and perhaps other states?)
In the same paper, Mearsheimer asserts “nationalism is the most powerful political ideology on the planet.” In the context of China’s reaction to the liberal world order, this makes a lot of sense.
Mearsheimer argues the United States has actually held primacy over two distinct world orders since the conclusion of World War II:
Cold War Order (1947-1991) — bipolar, nonliberal, and regionally bounded
Post-Cold War Order (1991-present) — unipolar, liberal, and international
According to Mearsheimer:
“…the post–Cold War liberal international order was doomed to collapse, because the key policies on which it rested are deeply flawed. Spreading liberal democracy around the globe, which is of paramount importance for building such an order, not only is extremely diffcult, but often poisons relations with other countries and sometimes leads to disastrous wars.”
Chinese leaders are more than happy to support this assessment. It conforms with their vision of Chinese exceptionalism and Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping’s belief that the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the re-emergence of Chinese civilization is both inevitable and on schedule.
This pulls us back to the question of China’s agency in the context of how its rise will continue to shape US-China relations and the current world order. The path towards a new world order will likely be bumpy, as such a dynamic will require creating a set of scaffolding norms to facilitate the transition.
The United States must develop an accurate understanding of China’s domestic constraints. This means assessing Chinese leaders’ ability to navigate a domestic political environment where nationalism is condoned and actively leveraged to support various domestic agendas.
Chinese extreme nationalism is a potent force rooted in a complex web of cultural, historical, ethnic, and hyper-modern characteristics of the information age. Such forces are immense constraints to the decision-making of Chinese leaders.
If the United States operates under the assumption that the onus is entirely on China for averting a bilateral confrontation, then the world may be on a dire collision course.
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Under Donald Trump, the beltway's view of China shifted from one of relative complacency to one verging on alarmism.
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Hawkish British politicians and an American industrial lobby group have called on Western allies to form a “Nato for trade” to counter China’s “weaponisation of policy tools to punish any nation that does not kowtow to Beijing”.
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At the first meeting of Nato’s 30 national leaders since 2019, China was central to discussions – as it had been at the G7 session in Cornwall, England, over the weekend.
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The announcement came during talks between the two heads of state via video link.
Hailing the upcoming 20th anniversary of the signing of the treaty, Xi said in Beijing that the treaty has established the idea of enduring friendship, which conforms to the fundamental interests of the two countries as well as the themes of peace and development.
The treaty is a vivid example of fostering a new type of international relations and building a community with a shared future for humanity, he said.
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Citic Group, whose businesses span everything from banking to securities and mining, recently dispatched a team to Huarong to pore over the embattled distressed-debt manager’s books, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.