By Arab News
By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
China-US tensions have been on the rise over the past few years. Trade wars and the controversy over how China handled the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak have added a sharp tone to the heated rhetoric between Beijing and Washington, and made the saber-rattling more ominous. There is much speculation about what the next steps in the China-US rivalry will look like, with some analysts already warning of an impending military confrontation accompanied by firm alignments to one side or the other.
While a full-fledged war is still far-fetched, these developments could be the warning shots of a new cold war. If that is the case, what should the rest of the world do? How can another devastating cold war be avoided? The EU, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and others are considering their next steps.
We should remember that the US-Soviet Cold War came with tremendous human, economic, security and political costs, and we should try to avoid repeating that history. That war lasted more than 40 years, ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and was devastating: Millions were killed in different proxy wars, in addition to millions more injured or displaced. The US alone lost about 100,000 people, from the military mostly, and the financial cost was estimated at $8 trillion. Important legacies remain today, including the enduring political instability and intractable economic mess in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Congo, to name just a few.
The US survived the Cold War and became the undisputed leader of a unipolar world — until recently, when its leadership was challenged. In an important address on May 25, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell went as far as saying that “we live in a leaderless world.” He added: “Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century. This is now happening in front of our eyes.” Borrell’s predictions about the end of American leadership may be disputed, but he is right in saying that Asia is now an increasingly important factor — in economic, security and technological terms.
COVID-19 is probably the first major crisis in decades where the US is not leading the international response, and neither for that matter is Europe. The bright spots are in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea.
China is claiming the mantle of leadership, while the US is preoccupied with the fiercely contested 2020 presidential election, the crippling, rapid spread of COVID-19 and rising racial tensions — issues that have raised questions about the leadership and trust within the US.
But leadership of the world order has its price: While China is gaining ground and getting more powerful and assertive, its quick rise has sparked fears and jealousies. Many are asking questions about its readiness for a leadership role. For example, as the world’s second-largest economy, how much is it willing to provide in assistance to poor countries and international organizations compared to the US, which has been the largest aid donor and funder of international organizations? Some question China’s trade and investment policies in developing countries. Others question China’s adherence to international conventions on human rights. Beijing needs to address these questions and apprehensions.
The China-US rivalry is also having a major effect on the multilateral system. There are now many more divisions and fewer agreements on major issues.
With this rivalry, there is growing direct and indirect pressure on others to choose sides. The biggest prize may be the EU, the largest trading bloc in the world. While in the Cold War most of Europe was solidly in the US camp, now the EU as a group and some of its members are at odds with the Trump administration over important issues, including Iran. But will they side with China?
At last Friday’s EU foreign ministers meeting, China was the main topic. After the meeting, Borrell said those present concluded that China is “a competitor, yes. It is a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival. Everything at the same time. So it is a complex relationship that cannot be reduced to a single dimension.” Borrell indicated that the EU’s China policy is still evolving, but outlined some of the elements that need to be addressed in terms of interests and values. What is clear is that the EU is trying not to be drawn into the China-US rivalry for global leadership. For example, the EU is not following America’s approach and imposing sanctions on China, but nevertheless it is challenging Beijing on many contentious issues.
Once completed, the EU’s China policy will have important implications on the new world order and China-US rivalry. Let us hope that the EU will emphasize cooperation instead of rivalry. The GCC is also considering its approach to this growing dilemma. COVID-19 has made it imperative to do so, with its devastating effects on the world economy and disruption of supply chains.
The GCC does not need to choose sides because it is close to both: The US has been a security and strategic ally for decades, as well as an economic and cultural partner. China is the GCC’s top trading partner, with increasing political and security ties. Both sides also need the GCC as a source of energy and a thriving market for their products. As such, the GCC should be working to enhance its partnership with both countries.
Because the China-US rivalry and trade wars have contributed to the global economic slowdown, and hence harmed the economies of the GCC and EU, they need to do more by trying to bridge the growing divide between Beijing and Washington and encouraging a more cooperative approach.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1