Accompanied by harsh rhetoric, China and the United States are drifting further and further apart. This relates to Russia — and to China’s fear of an “Asian NATO.”
Didn’t Xi Jinping say it? The United States and its allies have “contained, isolated and suppressed” China, the Chinese party leader and head of state said angrily a few days ago. Xi made the remarks on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, the annual parliamentary session that came to an end today in Beijing. And on this same Monday U.S. president Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are meeting in San Diego, California. They intend to make known their plans for mutual construction of nuclear submarines for Australia. This is a strategic course of action because these weapons are directed against China. What is this if not containment?
Welcome to a world that is racing toward a second cold war with devastating speed. Politicians and strategic masterminds have long disputed that there could even be a second. They say the two modern superpowers, China and the United States, are too tightly intertwined economically and financially. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has never been a significant part of the world economy. In the first Cold War, East and West stood across from each other like two foreign universes. Because there were no connections, no stabilizing mutual dependencies, the world teetered on the nuclear brink.
A plausible argument. Except now the two world powers are dissolving what ties them together. The United States is complicating the export of technological premium products like the latest generation of microchips to China in favor of its own industry and the companies of its allies. In turn, the People’s Republic does not want to be dependent on the West for key technologies and is counting on self-sufficiency. This economic-technological confrontation course is accompanied by escalating rhetoric. Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who recently came into office, warned last week that “if America doesn’t slow down and accelerates further down the wrong path instead,” it could have “catastrophic consequences.”
There are many reasons why tensions are growing between the two world powers. The most important reason is Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Beijing has clearly taken Russia’s side. For over a year, China has refused to condemn Russian aggression. On the contrary, the mood between Beijing and Moscow is becoming increasingly friendly. For China, the blame for Ukraine’s misfortune, exactly in line with Putin’s own narrative, lies with the Eastern expansion of NATO driven by the United States, which runs contrary to Russia’s “legitimate security interests.”
The Chinese statements almost sound like an accusation against the United States of leading a kind of proxy war in Ukraine. China’s foreign minister, Qin, supposes that the war is being controlled by an “invisible hand.” He claims this force is “abusing the Ukraine crisis to reach certain geopolitical goals.” He believes it is in the interest of this “invisible hand” that the war continues long-term, through arms shipments, for example.
There Is Too Much Arming and Not Enough Talking
These are pretty ridiculous assumptions. However, many of the American replies to China’s challenge seem hysterical and indeed in their ideological escalation call to mind the early phase of the first Cold War. Recently a Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party has been created in the House of Representatives. It is a congressional committee just for the CCP. It was formed in January after Republicans claimed the majority in the House. The committee chair, Rep. Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin, describes the American-Chinese rivalry like this: “We may call this a strategic competition, but it’s not a polite tennis match. This is a struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century. And the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
In the meantime, the arms race in the Indo-Pacific theater is accelerating with frightening speed. China is building up its navy, already the largest in the world in terms of numbers, as well as its nuclear arsenal. The People’s Republic currently probably has about 350 nuclear warheads in its possession. However, according to Pentagon estimates, it could already be 1,500 in 2035. China would then no longer be an “average nuclear power” like France or the United Kingdom, but rather a nuclear superpower.
The United States and its allies in the region for their part are upgrading their defenses. Japan, the third largest economic power in the world, intends to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defense, like the NATO countries. Taiwan more than doubled its military budget of $10.7 billion in 2018 to almost $22 billion in 2022. Australia raised its defense spending in 2021 by over 7%. And the United States itself once more passed a record budget for the Pentagon for 2023: $816.7 billion.
Military cooperation between the United States and Western-oriented countries in the region — Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan, of course — as well as with each other, is becoming ever closer. China fears nothing more than the security partnership established by the United States with Australia and the United Kingdom known as AUKUS. On the one hand, because of the nuclear submarines, whose construction the three government heads intend to finally discuss today in San Diego. On the other hand, because the partnership will encompass further key technologies like cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonic weapons and underwater drones. From Beijing’s perspective AUKUS looks like the core of a future “Asian NATO.”
The government in Washington should be content with China’s concerns over the West’s military buildup in the Indo-Pacific. This way, according to the American calculations, the Chinese leadership might be prevented from following Putin’s example and forcefully reaching for Taiwan. However, besides a demonstration of strength, it will require clever diplomacy to reach this goal. The masterminds behind the containment strategy in the first Cold War knew that it takes both: arming and talking. At the moment there is far too much arming and not nearly enough talking.
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