The new Cold War started: a major hegemonic war could be avoided also this time?

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Martin Jacques, British scholar, wrote a famous book in 2009: “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order”. At that time the Chinese rise seemed inevitable to many. Today things are changing. The US just released the new China strategy based on “Competitive Approach”. The report argues that previous hopes for a “fundamental economic and political opening” in mainland China have failed, and Beijing now “promotes globally a value proposition that challenges the bedrock American belief in the unalienable right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Covid crisis was not the main reason to destroy US-China cooperation, as many analysts said recently. It just made start the acute phase, starting a new Cold War. But the Great Power competition and the concept of “strategic competition”, born with Trump presidency, four years ago, but the rivalry between US and China started even earlier, when the US realized that China was going global, with Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013. China would have been another rival, together with Russia, after the end of the Cold War. And some signal arrived already at the beginning of the century, when China started to grow 10% per year, having figured out how to make capitalism to cohabit with statalism (create a new “state capitalism”) and solved the collective action problem, with a gigantic population. The interest to growth as the new world leader was already sending signs.

At the beginning of the Obama administration though, the approach to China was cooperative, to see if China could have been integrated in the Western world, exactly like the West did with Russia. That was the intention of the Obama’s “pivot to Asia”. At the beginning of his presidency, the US was sure that “great-power competition and conflict is no longer the driving force of international relations” as the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate declared.[1] The US thought the same about Russia for a while. But Asian powers demonstrated in the last decade that they cannot be “tamed” with socialization in the international community: they have a civilizational history that they will not give up just to integrate in another civilization, and a continental identity, that push them to have a vocation to world leadership, in a way or another. Liberal theories showed their weaknesses, and realism came back.

With Russia the West started with cooperative approach, after end of Cold War, but after Russia’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia and moreover Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, we understood that cooperative approach was not going to bring Russia closer to Europe or to NATO. On the contrary. Same with China: when China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 nobody could think that the country would have start to grow 10% per year without stopping for two decades. China’s economic development has been nothing short of spectacular. So when China opened the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, it became clear that they wanted to “go global” (as a famous book said the same year) and actually they had to, otherwise they could not sustain that growth. It is the destiny of growing powers, either you keep extending or you die. Even if you will die eventually anyway for the “imperial overstretching”, unless you conquer the world as someone tried to do in the past (without success fortunately, at least until now). So even if President Xi Jinping declared in 2017 launching the BRI, that we had to fly all together like a flock of geese, it was clear that when you can guide 1.5 billion people telling them what to do and how to do it, the flock of geese has already the first goose that lead the group.

Now the problem is that in international relations there are lessons learned from history. One is that when you have a rising power, sooner or later you will have a hegemonic war. Since Sparta and Athens times has been like this, this is the ‘security dilemma’ of international relations.  According to the Thucydides Trap, when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result: the hegemonic war theory (Gilpin) and hegemonic stability theory (Keohane) follow this lesson. But this is the thing: a major war could be avoided may be this time thanks to economic competition in this decade. Without the support of international system and without a cooperative approach, China will be unable to become the hegemon. Actually, if you sell mostly outside, and have no innovation potential inside, because of lack of diversity and lack of attraction of best brains in the world (who will always prefer to go to the US and Europe) there is no much you can do without the support of globalization. Even if Chinese premier Li Keqiang launched in 2015 the program “Made in China” for 2025, to transform the country from being the ‘world’s factory’, producing cheap, low-quality goods, to producing higher-value products, like aerospace and semiconductors, the path is still long.

The problem is that China is a hostage state to globalization, and to its customers, that are outside, so it cannot become a hegemon or even a dominant power in times of defection and competition. If globalization will be reduced, starting with the consequence of this pandemic, and states competition will go on, a hegemonic total war could be avoided with a Cold War, based on economic competition and internal stability, similar to the one of last century between US and Soviet Union. We don’t know if this will really happen, or a major war is inevitable, but as President Trump always says, resembling the fatalist approach of a gambler: we’ll see what happens.

[1] United States-China Relations in the Era of Globalization: Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, Second Session, May 15, 2008, Volume 4.

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