The number of people infected by COVID-19 in the U.S. increases daily by 50,000. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has reached more than five million, and 1000 Americans die every day (the death toll is now over 175,000). We, the survivors, continue to live behind closed doors, limiting our contacts to a minimum, shopping once a week, sitting in a little garden (if you are privileged enough to have one), and repeating conversations with our loved ones. We continue to exist without any outside stimulus, with no impulses. We no longer use our instincts because everything has become so routine and predictable. Not completely, since we still have our brains. We can read, write, and think. And when it comes to thinking, it becomes really hard. Locked in, with institutions locked down, with public spaces gone and therefore urban life equivalent to zero, we are left — more than ever — in the hands of the people in power who command our lives. And when the people that dispose of your life are Donald Trump, or Xi Jinping on the other side of the globe, (we could add a long list of names of the leaders in the countries between the U.S. and China, Slovenia included), then perhaps you are at the point of having serious apathy. There is a constant echo in our heads: when did this all happen? What happened to the times when lunatics were kept in safe places and the people could walk freely? When you realize this, you understand that something terrible is going on.
As the world hurdles towards a new unknown, melting away because of climate change and invaded by the plague, we should perhaps stop using the old, rusty paradigms to define the coming changes. But since humans are not capable of ecdysis, the magnetic power of nostalgia combined with the fear of the unknown won’t let us drop the old ways. And yet, as the planet burns, we humans, faces covered by masks, are moving with uncertain, silent paces through the streets, scanning for the potential COVID enemy. We have been transformed into extraterrestrial creatures, each of us living on our own planet. Our social fabric has been broken and even at home when we take off our masks, we use the language we hear on TV. We zoom. And when we hear that the current escalation of hostilities between China and the U.S. is being described as a new cold war, we nod. Finally, something we are familiar with. For certain, rare experts and out-of-the-box thinkers are trying to warn us that war in East Asia is imminent and that we may stumble into conflict even before the American election in November. But alas, the majority of pundits, media, and even politicians are trying to reassure everyone that what we are witnessing is just an extension of the good old cold war. Wouldn’t that be nice?
By denying the looming reality, we are trying to escape from our responsibility, which requires some serious thinking and a huge collective effort that would perhaps help us avoid catastrophe and return some quality to our lives. Instead, what we are witnessing is a general falling back into the idea of the cold war that lasted for almost half of the 20th century. The obsolete cold war is just an illustration of the general idea and wishful thinking that everything will go back to normal, that the world we live in now is just a brief nightmare. People need certainty, they need to return to their comfort zones, and the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a stable, balanced situation when compared to the environment we live in today. It was managed by coded language and strict rules, and we had a more or less prosperous life. We did not have inequality to the extent that we know it today, with a 1 to 99 percent divide. Who would not like to live in the old cold war again? Who wouldn’t want to have a peaceful life for the next 50 years, have no problem finding a job and putting children through school? For old school politicians such as the Committee on the Present Danger, Cold War II travels at the speed of COVID-19. But while the original one, before it disintegrated in the dust of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, was a defined, measured, and sturdy structure, the current contradictions between China and the U.S. are not. With the exception of one element perhaps: as far as the West is concerned, the suspicion and hatred against the Soviets have been replaced with hatred against everything Chinese. Perhaps even the recent shutting down of the consulates, one on each side, may evoke that old black-and-white reality from distant times.
The Cold War project built the Berlin wall, used a lot of barbed wire, froze the channels of communication, and provoked the challenge between two completely different, isolated economic systems. The Cold War as we knew it was an ideological war, a low tech conflict in which spy satellites played a minimal role. There was no internet and no cyber warfare. In short, there were piles of tanks and stocks of nukes and other hard power, but the only soft power in use was the ideology.
The Soviet leaders’ position from those times was that it was necessary to see American power destroyed. It was hatred and ideology that inspired them. Meanwhile, the U.S. fought back against what they thought was the communist virus. That’s not what China’s game is all about today. Nothing indicates that Chinese leadership is planning an annihilation of America. The current dispute is about power and geopolitics, about resources and survival. Even if this fight is fought in space and with cyber weapons, it will be much more down to earth, like the ideological fight that prevailed during the Cold War. It might get nasty, but it will not be the end of the world — the threat that was used as ideological leverage during the Cold War.
One of the reasons why Sino-American relationships are deteriorating is because of the erratic American leadership. There’s no point in describing the sea of madness that is the 45th President of the U.S. For the last three years, the whole country has been trying to figure out the meaning of Trump’s words, to give some sense to his thinking. It has been in vain, as there is nobody, Trump included, that is able to explain what is going on in his head.
For this reason, most of the uncertainty about the future is coming from the American side, with the exception of two solid, non-negotiable points: The U.S. wants to remain on the cutting edge of all modern technologies and it views the Chinese as a threat in that regard. The war against Huawei is one example of this attitude.
The second one is the Pacific: The United States will not accept sharing power in the Pacific if it means allowing China to become a regional hegemon in Asia. Washington is now ready to do everything in its power to prevent China from becoming an equal competitor. As John Mearsheimer explained in a recent interview for The Asahi Shimbun:
You want to remember the United States in the 20th century put four potential peer competitors on the scrap heap of history: Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.
If China becomes a regional hegemon in Asia, it will have no threats in Asia to worry about, and it will be free to roll into the Western Hemisphere and form military alliances with countries like Cuba and Venezuela. This is why the United States goes to great lengths to prevent China from dominating Asia.
There are less than three months until the presidential election and with each passing day, with increasing pressure on Trump, there is a chance that this president might do something even more dangerous than what he has done so far. The reason he is inclined to do it is to please and keep his loyal voters. He does not care about the outside world, he does not think about the consequences of his actions. His instinct is telling him to do anything to keep himself in power because his presidential immunity will protect him from the civil courts. If he opts not to start some kind of war (there is an old saying that you do not change the commander in chief during an ongoing military conflict), he might refuse to leave the White House if he loses the election. How can he do that? There are multiple scenarios, already described in this publication, and there will be plenty of occasions to discuss them later.
However, there are a myriad of ways in which Sino-American conflict could start, but, as stated earlier, we might as well just stumble into a new war. There is, of course, also a peaceful solution but we no longer have the time to wait with arms crossed doing nothing. There is no longer time to battle about socialism and capitalism. We need to find a way to manage this world in a way so that we and the planet can coexist. The problem is that Trump is proposing nothing.
China instead has a plan to take center stage in the next 20 years, imposing a new authoritarian — but at the same time extremely efficient — system. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president abolished presidential term limits two years ago in his thirst for power, signaling his intention to stay in power indefinitely. He did it as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s first two revolutions, explained Elisabeth Economy, one of the major experts on contemporary China. “Mao Zedong’s revolution was about China standing up, and Deng Xiaoping’s was about China growing rich. Xi’s revolution is about China moving to the center of the global stage, replacing the narrative of humiliation with a narrative of China as a determining force in world affairs,” Economy says.
China no longer exports the entire package of Marxist–Leninist ideology. It has replaced it with a supply of techno-authoritarianism that it sends to governments in the developing world. Economy gives the example of Africa, in which Huawei currently enjoys 80% of its 4G market and where Chinese-owned Star TV content is flooding African screens. Many authoritarian governments are buying mass-surveillance products from China. And of course, these newer instruments of power are complemented by Xi’s substantial upgrades to the Chinese military and the defense industry.
There is also the Xi Jinping project called the One Belt One Road initiative. The new Silk Road, as it was originally called, was conceived as an infrastructure project that would help pump the overflow of Chinese merchandise all the way to Europe. After seven years, the project evolved into a trillion-dollar infrastructure program with dubious economic potential that has aroused intense suspicion in the West.
The hottest spot for eventual conflict is the South China Sea, which has become a strategic Chinese defense line but can also function as support in the Beijing attack on Taiwan. After the control of Hong Kong, with the COVID-19 disguise, where China chained democracy, more and more experts are now convinced that the “rebellious” island will become the next target. The U.S.’s obligations to defend Taiwan stay in place, and the Trump administration is tightening its relationship with the island. Will the U.S. actually do something? In the case of a Chinese attack, it is hard to know. The two sides may actually decide to shoot at each other somewhere deep in the Pacific, the reason being to avoid involvement from Japan and South Korea.
With the arrival of Xi in 2012, the power structure in China changed. With almost absolute power in his hands, Xi replaced collective leadership with a strong one-man rule. Previously, the Chinese regime consistently displayed a certain degree of ideological flexibility and political pragmatism. “That system has been dismantled and replaced by a regime marked by a high degree of ideological rigidity, punitive policies toward ethnic minorities and political dissenters at home,” observes Min Xinpei, explaining: “The consensus-based decision-making of the earlier era might have been slow and inefficient, but it prevented radical or risky ideas from becoming policy. Under Xi, correcting policy mistakes has proved to be difficult, since reversing decisions made personally by the strongman would undercut his image of infallibility.”
There are plenty of chances that one side or the other will make a mistake and pull the trigger. Our only hope is that we will be able to replace both of these leaders who are not capable of reason. The recent days show that perhaps this time, America is on the path to replace madness with decency. Let’s hope the Chinese folks can do something similar. If not, we will just have to kneel down and pray that the cold war will return back to our planet.