17 June 2020
On Tuesday, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne criticised China and Russia for spreading disinformation and using the COVID-19 pandemic to “undermine liberal democracy to promote their own, more authoritarian models”. This criticism followed Scott Morrison’s attack on China last week, in which he condemned Chinese economic “coercion” and declared that he will not “trade our values”.
Australia is not the only country whose ties with China have deteriorated during the pandemic. Leaders of the European Union, France, Britain and more have all expressed concerns over China’s secrecy about its handling of the virus and over its recent tightening of controls in Hong Kong with the introduction of new national security legislation. Last week, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said China was “multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms, and increasing the competition over our values and our way of life”.
Not surprisingly, this worsening schism between the West and communist-led China, and growing talk of defending values and democracy, is fuelling suggestions that the world is facing a second Cold War. The idea is particularly popular in Washington, probably because the United States won the first one so decisively. But such suggestions are misleading.
Today, unlike during the Cold War, there is no iron curtain, no sharp divide separating the West from its communist rival. For instance, even as Beijing tries to intimidate and punish Canberra, iron ore is flowing abundantly from the Pilbara to Chinese ports.
In addition, the countries in tension with China are not a solid bloc. Many nations may be unhappy with China, but each is unhappy in its own way. The complex relationships that states around the world have with China – including through commercial ties, Chinese expatriate communities, and movements of tourists and students – mean that individual countries have distinct interests, and view their links with Beijing in different ways. Donald Trump, for instance, could at any moment reach a trade deal with Xi Jinping that may simultaneously improve US relations with Beijing and damage Australia’s economy by forcing China to buy more from American farmers. Likewise, Australia has pursued its interests by joining trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Indo-Pacific pact that includes China but excludes the United States.
It is possible that rising tensions between China and the West may lead Western countries to put aside their differences and unite against Beijing. This is improbable as long as Donald Trump, who advocates for “America first”, is in the White House. But recent events suggest that a Cold War–style Western bloc is unlikely even after Trump. Increasingly, countries have been looking to form coalitions to protect specific shared interests, rather than combining to create a single front.
Boris Johnson, for instance, recently proposed forming a “D10” alliance – a group of leading democracies, which would include the members of the G7, plus South Korea, India and Australia. The D10’s main goal would be to develop 5G communications networks and critical supply chains to reduce its members’ reliance on China. Separately, Australia has reportedly been pushing for the Five Eyes intelligence network – to which the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand also belong – to coordinate an economic response to the pandemic. And Stoltenberg has suggested developing closer links between NATO and like-minded countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that he wanted Europe to become more self-reliant and less dependent on both China and the United States.
But there is another crucial way in which the current stand-off with China diverges from the Cold War. As Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, recently pointed out, a confrontation between the United States and China is “unlikely to end as the Cold War did, in one country’s peaceful collapse”. “The United States is not a declining power,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “On the other side, the Chinese economy possesses tremendous dynamism and increasingly advanced technology; it is far from being a Potemkin village or the tottering command economy that defined the Soviet Union in its final years.”
According to Lee, Singapore and other countries in the Asia-Pacific will want to keep trading with a growing China even if they have differences with it, while also supporting the United States as a strong “resident power” in Asia, whose currency and multinational firms will continue to underpin the global economy. This may seem a particularly Singaporean perspective on the changing balance of power, but that is the point: views on how to respond to China’s rise currently vary, depending on where in the world viewers stand.