Tuesday 22 Jun 2021 | 08:41 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Jun 2021 | 08:41 | SYDNEY

US-China: Cold war redux?


Michael Wesley


20 April 2010 15:15

In a recent Time Magazine article, Joshua Cooper Ramo – he of 'Beijing Consensus' fame – begins with an assumption that's become so dominant that it's rarely even noticed nowadays.

The assumption is that the character of relations between the US and China is the central dynamic shaping global politics in the years to come. Thus, if only the 'G2' can see eye to eye on climate change, trade, international finances, Iranian nukes and so on, all will be fine with the world. Similarly, if Washington and Beijing can't get on, we'd better strap ourselves in for a new Cold War.

This is Cold War redux at its most inappropriate – for two reasons. Today's US and China are not the same as America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The US and the USSR were superpowers, a word that's used so much these days that many have forgotten its original meaning: a power so much larger than all other types of state that collectively they would be no match for it. With this sort of power lead, any sudden change in relations between Washington and Moscow – for better or worse –  had a decisive effect on world politics.

America and China do not possess that kind of power gap with other classes of states. Unlike just after the Second World War, today the rest of the world is much richer and much better armed.

Furthermore, the Cold War was driven by ideology as much as by power. Today, America and China do not represent powerful, universalist ideologies that speak to the development and doctrinal issues that confront many of the world's societies. Neither state can meaningfully be said to have ideological followers that see the other state and the doctrine it represents as an existential threat to their way of life.

The second reason why this G2 thinking is wrong is that it raises the expectation that a single pattern of US-China relations will evolve: either all will be fine or all will be tense. But there are strong reasons to argue that the current complex and contradictory nature of Sino-American relations is going to be an enduring pattern. There are strands that are highly complementary – such as trade – as well as patterns of strategic competition and disagreement. The same pattern has arisen in China's relations with other significant powers: Japan, Russia, India, the EU.

There is a real danger that in fetishising the Sino-American relationship we will collectively miss the real dynamics of the evolving international system. The real story here is not that there is a single, central axis of world politics; it is that there are networks of crucial and interdependent axes emerging among the US and Asia's great powers that will set the pattern of world politics into the future.

Photo by Flickr user imarsman, used under a Creative Commons license.