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:

  1. Cold War Order (1947-1991) — bipolar, nonliberal, and regionally bounded

  2. 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.

US-China Relations

Biden Administration Warns Covid-19 Origins Review May Not Be Definitive

Biden administration officials are cautioning that a 90-day review into the origins of the Covid-19 virus may not produce a definitive explanation as intelligence agencies take on the challenge of unraveling the global pandemic.

Spy agencies conducting the review have yet to find conclusive evidence that would settle the debate over whether the virus came from human contact with an infected animal or was leaked from a Chinese government virology lab, a person familiar with the efforts said.

China is contributing to the ‘Cold War mentality,’ too

Next week, China’s Communist Party will mark the centenary of its founding. Authorities in Beijing have already closed off Tiananmen Square as plans for a grand, triumphant ceremony on July 1 proceed. One hundred years ago, the party held its first clandestine meeting at a girls’ school in Shanghai during a time of political turmoil. Now, it stands as a colossus on the international stage, in command of what will soon become the world’s largest economy and buoyed by the belief that it has restored China to its historical place of primacy in global affairs.

A quiet battle is raging in Congress over how the US will respond to China's growing power

Under Donald Trump, the beltway's view of China shifted from one of relative complacency to one verging on alarmism.

The bipartisan consensus on the need for a significant response to the rise of Chinese power has now driven major new China legislation in both the Senate and House. While both bills are forceful responses to China's increasing power, they present critical choices as to how extreme the turn in America's China policy will be.


British, US China hawks call for ‘Nato for trade’ against Beijing

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”.

Nato says China presents ‘systemic challenges’ and vows to counter its rise

For the first time in its 72-year history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has branded China as presenting “systemic challenges”, in a statement that vowed to counter Beijing’s rise. 

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. 

Xi, Putin announce extension of China-Russia friendly cooperation treaty

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement Monday, officially deciding to extend the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.

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.

China Tech

US-China tech war: mainland universities rush to expand semiconductor programmes in drive for self-sufficiency

Universities across mainland China are rushing to set up new schools and departments focused on semiconductors, in a push to develop more skilled talent to support Beijing’s strategic goal of chips self-sufficiency amid the country’s intense hi-tech rivalry with the United States.

US-China tech war: Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei tells his employees to learn from the United States

Huawei Technologies must remain open, continue to grow in international markets, and learn from the United States, even though the country continues to apply pressure, according to the latest published speech from company founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei.

China Economy

China Asks Citic Group to Examine Huarong’s Finances

China has asked one of its biggest state-owned conglomerates to examine the finances of China Huarong Asset Management Co., people familiar with the matter said, adding a new twist to the drama that has roiled the world’s second-largest credit market for months.

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.

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash