Beware, a new Cold War approaches

Covid-19-related news has become all-pervasive, dominating the media landscape, and hijacking our collective consciousness. This has provided cover for China’s latest adventurous incursion into contested waters in the South China Sea over which it claims ownership.

It sent a survey vessel and as many as 10 coast guard and maritime militia ships to shadow a Petronas-owned drilling vessel in Malaysian-claimed waters, leading to a bold show of force by the US and Australian navies.

This is but the latest episode in the long-festering animosity between the US and China that has seen power play, including faceoffs, in the South China Sea in recent years.

If that’s not bad enough, tensions threaten to escalate dramatically due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Many say that conflict between the two nations is inevitable, and that the pandemic could be the catalyst.

There’s plenty of precedent for this. The Thucydides’s Trap describes a deadly pattern in the past 500 years of world history where 12 out of 16 times war broke out when a ruling power was challenged by a rising power.

A keen historian, Thucydides noted that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable”.

Writing in the Atlantic, Harvard’s Graham Ellison provides further evidence of this: “When a rising, revolutionary France challenged Britain’s dominance of the oceans and the balance of power on the European continent, Britain destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet in 1805 and later sent troops to the continent to defeat his armies in Spain and at Waterloo.

“As Otto von Bismarck sought to unify a quarrelsome assortment of rising German states, war with their common adversary, France, proved an effective instrument to mobilise popular support for his mission. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a rapidly modernising Japanese economy and military establishment challenged Chinese and Russian dominance of East Asia, resulting in wars with both from which Japan emerged as the leading power in the region.”

And of course, who can forget a rapidly militarising Germany which challenged Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II.

Similarly, China has been flexing its muscles for a while now, to the chagrin of some of its neighbours and the US.

But Covid-19 is acting as a watershed moment that could rapidly turn much of the world against it.

Naturally, it’s spearheaded by the US which is pushing for an investigation into the theory that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of Covid-19. Donald Trump has even gone so far as to call it the “Chinese Virus” and consistently blames China for the outbreak, saying Beijing concealed critical early information about the virus, leading to its proliferation.

Many Americans share his sentiment. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March indicates that two-thirds of Americans have an unfavourable view of China and its premier Xi Jinping.

On the European front, an online poll of 1,500 German adults conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in May found 77% saying China was at least somewhat to blame for the virus and 34% saying they were significantly to blame.

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are pressing China for transparency about the origin of Covid-19 while British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab ominously declared that it would no longer be business as usual with China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands squarely in the same camp, calling for an investigation into the origins of the virus along with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) handling of the ensuing outbreak.

Japan has gone a step further, putting its money where its mouth is, by promising to spend over US$2 billion (RM8.6 billion) to move Japanese companies’ production out of China.

However, amid all this growing international pressure, China’s stance has only hardened, becoming more retaliatory than conciliatory. In order to punish what it sees as an increasingly belligerent Australia, it suspended imports from four major Australian meat suppliers. Chinese state media have even called Australia “gum stuck to China’s shoe”.

To add to that, China’s bellicosity in the South China Sea has drawn the ire of its frequent allies Vietnam and the Philippines, which have lodged protests against it. Indonesia was pulled into the contentious waters as well, with its navy involved in a stand-off with Chinese coast guard vessels in the area not long ago.
Such strident shows of force and temerarious threats aren’t gaining China any friends. To add to that, many countries are waking up to the reality of their crippling dependence on China.This will undoubtedly spur an unprecedented wave of onshoring, reversing the decades-old trend of shipping jobs to wherever it was cheapest, very often China.

So where does that leave us?

Despite the increasingly fractious global landscape, we can draw some solace from the fact that out of the four times humanity escaped the Thucydides Trap, three instances happened in the last 50 years. So there’s definite precedent for the ability of major powers to avoid all-out war. We have the threat of mutually assured destruction, thanks to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to thank for that.

So I don’t expect Covid-19 and the economic carnage it has unleashed to spark a war. However, over the next few years, tensions will undeniably rise to a point where Cold War-like dynamics will begin to crystallise.

It’s apparent even now: Cold War-type blocs are already forming. The democracies of the world – the likes of the US, India, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and many western European nations – are beginning to coalesce in their response to the crisis and form a loose bloc.

China, Russia and the many nations inexorably tied to China, thanks to its strategic investments in Africa, and the Belt and Road initiative, will form another bloc.

Malaysia, as always, will take the path of least resistance and stay friendly with both blocs so as to not suffer the wrath of either.

Let’s just hope that calmer heads prevail so that national actors don’t intentionally or inadvertently spark a humanity-threatening, unwinnable war.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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