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At least the 20th-century struggle between the West and USSR had clear sides and a single goal: world domination. Dealing with Beijing is messier, and who knows where it will lead

Performers dressed as rescue workers gather around the Communist Party flag during a gala show in Beijing on Jan. 28 last year, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the party's founding.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

John Rapley is a professor at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is Twilight of the Money Gods.

When late last year, amid escalating China-U.S. tensions, Chinese President Xi Jinping failed to turn up at the COP26 climate summit, it was a vivid reminder of a worrying development: After decades of deepening ties and building bridges to the West, China is turning inward. It’s expanding its military, developing sophisticated new weapons and growing more belligerent. It’s starting to feel as if the arms races and power struggles of the old Soviet-American rivalry have come roaring back, Beijing taking Moscow’s former place at the heart of the communist world.

Were that the case, China would prove a more formidable foe than Soviet Russia ever was. For all its military hardware, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics never mustered much in the way of global reach. The aid and trade it could offer its clients were a pittance compared with American largesse, the result being a mere handful of allies and overseas bases relative to the Americans. With a sluggish economy capped by an expensive military complex, the Soviet Union was famously described by one German chancellor as “Upper Volta with missiles.”

China, by contrast, is a genuine superpower. Not only has it the world’s largest army, it also is augmenting its reach by the year. In the field of diplomacy, it’s using its Belt and Road Initiative, which funds infrastructure projects in other countries, to plug the gaps left by retreating Western donors, accumulating a network of clients around the world. And nobody could ever describe China, an industrial powerhouse that leads the planet in the development of green and information technologies, as a backward economy.

It therefore seems only natural that as the country grows into its new-found heft, it’s starting to throw its weight around. Beijing has been reining in freedoms and repressing dissidents in Hong Kong, building militarized islands in the western Pacific, sending fighter jets over Taiwan, and imposing punishing economic sanctions on neighbours who run afoul of it, as Australia did when its government criticized its obstructions to an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Chinese submarines take part in a military display in the South China Sea in 2018.China Stinger Network/Reuters

It takes two to tango, however, and the United States gives every indication it’s up to this fight. It has been stepping up its own military patrols in the western Pacific and inching away from its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. Asked recently if the U.S. would defend the Chinese island from a mainland invasion, President Joe Biden replied yes.

Faced with all this sabre-rattling, some observers have thus begun speaking of a Thucydides Trap, the notion that a rising superpower tends to clash with a declining one. China’s official view appears to have moved toward the position that the U.S. is indeed a declining empire, making it a more dangerous threat.

As if on cue, America has been shifting its focus to its Asian and Pacific alliances. While deepening its long-standing ties with Japan, South Korea and Australia, it has started building new ones with India, and drawing European allies such as Britain into the Pacific region, all with an eye to hemming in China.

But this may just be buying time. It seems obvious that sooner or later, an encircled China will break out of its confines. And with tensions rising, it would seem the world is hurtling toward its next Franz Ferdinand moment.

For all the talk of a new Cold War, there’s little resemblance between the emerging world order and that which existed in the postwar period. However, it might be more reassuring if there were. Because in some respects a new Cold War would be less worrying than the unfolding scenario.

People wave Chinese flags on June 28 at the Communist Party's 100th-anniversary celebrations at the Bird's Nest, the main Olympic stadium in Beijing.GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Let’s start with the good news. As comprehensible as a world split into two poles might be, the Cold War analogy doesn’t really work, for all sorts of reasons.

In the original Cold War, the so-called East and West blocs really stood apart. The members of the U.S.-led NATO pact were all market economies governed by liberal democracies – albeit punctuated by episodes of military rule in Greece, Portugal and Turkey – and they did lots of business with one another, the Europeans going so far as to form a common market. Meanwhile, the Russian-led East Bloc were all centrally planned economies run by communist parties that traded with one another on a barter basis.

As a result, political, economic, military and cultural ties within each bloc were tight, but links across the blocs were scarce. You didn’t bump into Russian students at American universities and Western drop-outs didn’t spend a gap year backpacking across East Germany or Bulgaria. These really were two separate worlds.

Today, by contrast, China does a roaring trade with the planet and plays host to most of its major companies. It will welcome athletes from around the world for the Winter Olympics, which begin next month.

Meanwhile, all you have to do is visit any Western university campus or tourist destination to know China is hardly sealed off from the world. That the Western and Chinese economies remain deeply intertwined is a major source of friction, with Western politicians blaming China for stealing jobs. But it’s the sort of friction both sides have an interest in minimizing, since any outright conflict would be economically devastating to both parties.

As the recent U.S.-China accord at COP26 and the subsequent mini-summit between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi revealed, for all their tough talk, Washington and Beijing may not get along famously, but they still talk.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping from the White House this past November.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Nor is China building a bloc to speak of. Unlike the U.S., which has dozens of allies with which it shares varying mutual-defence arrangements, China’s formal allies number all of one. Worse, that ally is North Korea, a country that has become more of a headache than a help. Russia and China may forge partnerships on specific issues as a matter of convenience, but there seems to be little likelihood of them forming common cause.

And unlike the old Soviet Union, which used diplomacy to promote its political-economic model and patronize socialist movements, China takes little interest in the political-economic systems of the countries it aids. If anything, it is criticized for doing too little to shape the countries with which it cuts deals, happily ignoring whether governments are blood-thirsty despots.

To some extent, the fact that no Chinese bloc is emerging to rival the Western one reflects the teething pains of Chinese diplomacy. When Mao Zedong ruled China, the country largely withdrew from global currents. Its recent re-entry means that its officials are fairly new to the game of great-power diplomacy. As a result, they sometimes barge into a country without much appreciation of local context.

For instance, in its South Asian rivalry with India, China wields the bigger stick, but Indian diplomacy has proved more skilled at forging ties with neighbours. When Chinese diplomats go further and engage in the sort of “wolf-warrior diplomacy” that attracts favourable attention back in Beijing, they can actually worsen their country’s brand abroad.

But it’s also the case that China approaches the world in a fundamentally different way from the old Soviet Union. Unlike Soviet Russia’s aim of exporting world communism, China adheres quite rigidly to a doctrine of non-interference. It will do business with anyone, seeks to defend its interests, but generally avoids overt involvement in a country’s politics.

So while China fiercely defends its right to do as it pleases on its own territory, waving aside all criticism of its human-rights violations in Tibet or Xinjiang, it stays largely outside the politics of other countries. In consequence, it has not assembled a network of like-minded partners who will go to bat for it.

Party members pose for photos with a sculpture of the flag outside the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing this past November.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Whereas the old Cold War was an existential struggle for global influence, with two incompatible blocs aiming for all-out victory, China’s field of endeavour so far remains quite limited. By and large, the country is stepping up its military activities in its immediate neighbourhood, but doing much less in the wider world.

Yes, it’s expanding its presence in far-flung places such as the Arctic and Indian oceans, and it now has a base in Djibouti. Nevertheless, the country’s ability to project power abroad pales next to the U.S., whose navy can operate in virtually all the world’s seas. Even in the Indian Ocean region, China plays second fiddle to India. And while there have been growing fears that China may use its Belt and Road Initiative as a trojan horse, securing economic leverage over recipient countries and then putting pressure on them to accept a military presence, in practice, such a conversion of economic into military power will be a lot more difficult to pull off than is supposed.

Some analysts argue that even though no Chinese bloc has yet arisen, there’s no guarantee one won’t do so. More hawkish minds in Washington warn that if the U.S. doesn’t stand up to China now, the country will feel emboldened to eventually widen its footprint and start meddling in the politics of other countries. But the jury is still out on this, with some foreign policy experts concerned that it is the U.S., not China, which is worsening tensions by reading more into its rival’s behaviour than the situation merits. After all, while there are no Chinese aircraft carriers sailing off the coast of Florida, there are Western ones patrolling in the seas off China. Can one blame the Chinese for feeling a little defensive?

America’s pivot to Asia is alarming some of its allies from the old Cold War, particularly in Europe, where the U.S. is certainly leaving the Europeans to do more of the heavy lifting on their own turf. (But that’s been a long time coming, given that the U.S. spends more on defence than all its NATO partners combined.) The U.S.’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was done without serious consultation with allies, and its Aukus submarine deal, which launched a three-way food fight among Britain, France and Australia, has left America’s old friends in NATO wondering if their patron is abandoning them to their fate. Similarly, the U.S.’s large-scale departure from the Middle East has opened the region to greater Chinese and Russian influence.

Mr. Biden speaks with prime ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Boris Johnson of Britain at the White House this past September.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

However, what may be true is that the U.S. is moving away from its Cold War mentality. In place of maintaining one Western bloc, it is signing up to a set of pragmatic coalitions that are driven by specific needs: intelligence with the Five Eyes, Pacific security through Aukus, South and Southeast Asian security in The Quad, the pragmatic marriage of Western allies with Russia and China to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, along with long-standing bilateral arrangements with Japan and South Korea, and so forth. It’s as if after decades of a stable marriage with a fixed set of partners, the U.S. has discovered the geostrategic version of Tinder.

It’s this very fluidity that alarms some foreign policy experts. During the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR lived by the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine, the premise that any attack on the other would lead to a nuclear war that would obliterate the planet. As a result, it was understood the leaders of the two blocs had to maintain direct contact to prevent the sorts of misunderstanding that could accidentally trigger a war. Unfortunately, the Cold War hotline that linked Washington to Moscow doesn’t have a parallel today. A Washington-Beijing hotline exists, but it’s been known to literally ring without answer. Mindful of such poor communication and unclear protocols, old hands like Henry Kissinger worry that the absence of the sort of clarity the Cold War once gave the world could result in a mishap leading to outright conflict.

And at the moment, possible candidates for such a mishap are multiplying. Russia is massing troops on the Ukrainian border, Iran is stepping up its proxy war in the Middle East, and China is running military manoeuvres off the coast of Taiwan. The U.S. is going to have to decide how to respond to these provocations, but nobody can be quite sure what blueprint the White House will use to govern its choices.

And that was the thing about the old Cold War: You knew who your friends and foes were, the rules of the game were laid down and its object clear – global victory for one political-economic system. Today, we’re sort of fumbling our way in the dark, unsure of what we’ll find. And as any fan of horror films will tell you, sometimes the most frightening thing about the dark – the thing that makes you grab a weapon and lash out blindly – is not what’s there, but what you imagine to be there.

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