The race for global supremacy
The Cold War that began in the wake of World War II between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states) terminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it now seems a new Cold War has begun sometime back. This time around, the main actors are not the US and Russia –the successor state of the Soviet Union –but the US and China. The US has enjoyed unparalleled primacy in the world for many decades now. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union –its arch rival during the Cold War years –the US has been the only superpower in the world. It has been the only country in the world since then with the capability to project power to any corner of the world.
However, with the change in the economic fortune of the major countries of the world, the geopolitics and the global balance of power are changing too. The US feels alarmed as its primacy in the world and the current geopolitical balance, at least in the Asia-Pacific region, if not in the whole world, is under a formidable threat from rising China.
China's rapid and spectacular economic development over the last three decades and its becoming the second largest economy of the world by overtaking Japan at the end of 2010 are seen as challenging the United States' primacy in the world. The amazing economic achievements of China and its fast expanding trade and economic ties with countries across the continents, including the US, have given it tremendous self-confidence to assert itself in the world as a rapidly rising power and has brought it new prestige in the comity of nations, and the resultant strategic weight and global clout.
China has been swiftly supplanting the US as the larger investor and trading partner of many countries across the globe. In 2011, China was the larger trading partner for 124 countries and the US for 76. Despite some slowing down in its economic growth rate over the last couple of years, China is likely to surpass the US in an all round way by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is said to have already surpassed the United States in terms of Purchasing Power Parity Gross Domestic Product (PPP GDP). Needless to say, economy provides the lifeblood in politico-military primacy. The US is not likely to allow China a smooth and unimpeded passage to the position of the largest economy and, politically and militarily, the greatest power in the world; the status the former still enjoys.
Against the backdrop of its current economic strength and growing politico-military influence, China is increasingly asserting itself in the international arena and assuming global roles and responsibility; for instance, by creating alternatives to Bretton Woods Institutions (AIIB, BRICS Bank, etc), and establishing international connectivity initiatives, namely Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road ('Route,' instead of 'Road', could be possibly more appropriate). That, however, necessitates greater military strength to be able to project power in its own region and beyond. So, it is further strengthening its military, especially its maritime power to protect its interests in the seas, and to protect its sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and in the straits through Southeast Asian countries, connecting the Indian and the Pacific oceans to secure safe passage to and from the Middle East on whose oil China's dependence is enormous. Many of China's neighbours are worried about China's military build-up and increasingly assertive bearing in the region.
The rivalry between China and the United States is not underpinned only by the economic competition. It is equally, if not more so, in the context of today's world, a competition for geopolitical supremacy. For the US, it is a struggle to retain its economic, political and military primacy as the number one power in the world; and for the rising and increasingly more assertive China, it is to ascend to the position of the number one power in the world by replacing the United States. The struggle has intensified so much that we are now probably witnessing a cold war between the two countries –the two foremost economic and political powers of our time. And other major powers are polarising around them. India is showing propensity to side with the US while Pakistan with China. Japan and South Korea as well as some Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia having territorial disputes with China in the East or South China seas are polarising around the US. Russia and North Korea are also siding with China, although Russia might depolarise later, for it would be also apprehensive of a very strong and militarily mighty China on its doorstep. Europe was the epicentre of the previous Cold War. The epicentre has now shifted to East Asia. So, the EU might exhibit some hesitancy to come clean and join any of the two sides, for it's not going to be directly affected by the latest geopolitical rivalry. Moreover, many of the EU - and European countries have deep and vital trade and economic ties with China.
The United States seems to consider its perceived threat from China so huge and alarming that it appears desperate in its bid to contain China. The two countries' economic interconnectedness and interdependence, not to mention mutual cooperation on a number of global issues, are so deeply entrenched that they are not likely to opt for any open military confrontation between themselves, for that would prove mutually and immeasurably self-destructive. So, the only option is to resort to and remain engaged in a cold war –unless one of the two sides goes berserk and triggers an open confrontation or 'hot war'. Although the new cold war seems to have already begun sometime in the recent past, the military logistics deal between the US and India signed a month ago and the Pakistani cabinet's go-ahead of a plan to conclude a long-term security pact with China at about the same time, seem to constitute a clear plunge into another cold war. The polarisation of countries has assumed a clear configuration in the wake of these two events.
In fact, China might find it difficult to properly materialise the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and then keep it fully operational at all times. However, the ongoing implementation of its new overland silk routes (SREB) that would run through the Central and West Asian countries and connect China to the Middle East, Europe and Africa, may strategically become a convenient parallel alternative to the Maritime Silk Road. Hence, China would not fully depend on the sea lanes for import of its crucially needed oil from the Middle East.
China's much coveted ascension to the top of the world is not expected to be a trouble-free and unchallenged leap. The rest of the world outside its ambit should hope the New Cold War would not eventually slide into a world war –the Third World War –for that would have the potential to annihilate our contemporary civilisation and put the decimated humanity back to the Paleolithic age.
The writer is Former Ambassador and Secretary.