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It’s Neo-Cold War: Whether over Taiwan or Ukraine, US seems to be reactive while opponents appear proactive

Firstpost logo Firstpost 4/2/2023 N Sathiya Moorthy
It’s Neo-Cold War: Whether over Taiwan or Ukraine, US seems to be reactive while opponents appear proactive © Provided by Firstpost It’s Neo-Cold War: Whether over Taiwan or Ukraine, US seems to be reactive while opponents appear proactive

Gaffe or not, the US President Joe Biden’s slip-of-the-tongue reference to China when it should have been the host’s name while addressing the Canadian Parliament may be a reflection on the American administration’s pre-occupation with China. 

According to reports, Biden started off with ‘Chin…’ before correcting himself to say ‘Japan’ at a news conference later in the day. Russia, in the context of the ongoing Ukraine War, and not China, should have been in his mind, if at all. But that was not so.

The reasons are not far to seek. The Ukraine War seems to have taken too much of American time, energy and also money that Washington spent just in one year. This has left huge openings all across that Xi’s China’s exploiting, though only politically, to the hilt. 

A year into the war, in which the US and the rest of the West has been funding Ukraine to try to fight off ‘aggressor’ Russia, Xi Jinping has stolen their thunder.

To begin with, Xi’s 12-point peace plan has nothing new or specific, but the fact that the two warring nations and their leaders have clutched at it like the proverbial last straw has made the Chinese leader and his nation an unintended player in the evolving European political dynamic. Should a peace pact come out of his efforts, or is even remotely identifiable with him, then Xi has beaten ‘em all to it, and not just in Europe.

One-China policy

In distant Central America, tiny Honduras has suddenly snapped decades-old ties with Taiwan, as a part of its new-found ‘One China’ policy. The implication is that Taiwan forms a part of China. In practical terms, UN members cannot ride two boats by having diplomatic ties with both. The irony is that the US too does not recognise Taiwan in the UN but is ready to go to war with China (or, at least shadow-boxing in those seas) to defend Taiwan’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’, which is a physical reality but a technical fallacy. If China has its way in the UN General Assembly someday, then the US may end up having a lot to explain.

With Honduras gone, the number of nations that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan has come down to 12 – none of them, a mover and shaker.  And, through the past six or seven years, China has quietly worked on many nations to move away from Taiwan, by offering aid and assistance that they needed the most.

In his early years in office, even Xi was conciliatory, met with then Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore, 1915, and also ordered a freeze on poaching nations that had diplomatic ties with Taipei. All of it changed at the end of Ma’s second term in office, and under the current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, since 2016.

Having held back during the truce, China accepted Gambia’s hand of friendship a couple of years after the West African nation had broken ties with Taiwan. The truce with Taiwan also gave Xi the time to settle down in office after becoming President in 2012, before launching himself head-on in regional and international politics, going beyond Taiwan and Gambia, South China Sea and East China Sea.

Incidentally, the list of nations recognising Taiwan does not include any of the so-called western bloc biggies of the US and EU-member kind from the Cold War era. The US and the rest of them all acknowledged Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy very long ago, as they found that it is where their bread was buttered.  India does not recognise Taiwan officially. Like many others, it allows Taiwanese trade delegations and their offices in the country, through which its diplomats interact, but not officially, nor with the government.

Serious competition

Xi’s fresh forays into West Asia/ Middle East in the past months, and his ready acceptance especially by the US-propped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a peace-maker with Russia, have only raised the stakes for the US all of a sudden in what may have already become a ‘Neo-Cold War’. It is interesting to note that Ukraine is ready for Chinese mediation, recognising the possibility of Beijing going the Moscow way in case Xi’s efforts do not hold.

Possibly, Kyiv has concluded that such questions are for big boys like the US and EU to address – and by extension, that part of the problem is theirs and not that of Ukraine. 

Further, it is interesting to watch IMF amending rules just now, only to accommodate a warring nation (Ukraine) for a bail-out package of $ 15.6 billion, while it playing hard-ball with other nations like Sri Lanka and Pakistan,  whose reasons for seeking a bail-out package were/ are purely economic failures, not political misadventure (of wanting to join NATO).

The outcome may make China more determined than already to propagate and promote yuan-based global trade, also for political reasons. In the case of India, the desire to do business in the rupee is basically convenience- based, especially after the unilateral western ban on importing Russian oil, which became cheaper in the wake of the ‘Ukraine War’.

Xi’s recent Moscow visit might trigger a series of diplomatic moves in the coming days, weeks and months, and not just over the Ukraine War, where the US and China will be seen pitted against each other in the diplomatic space, especially. It is precisely what China wants and has been lacking through the past decade despite various attempts and actions. Beijing gets the kind of recognition as serious competition to the US in international affairs that it has been seeking out but without adequate response. Now, that is what a Neo-Cold War is all about.

Triggering tensions

The events around the Ukraine War, or the US despatching then House Speaker Nancy Pelosy  followed by navy vessels to Taiwan and its maritime space only heated up the charged atmosphere. China had not done anything more than already, with the result, the world ended up concluding that the US was triggering avoidable military tensions. Friends of the US did not really support Washington’s twin actions in this regard, even in words. They were not certainly expected to send out their navies and fighters, as happened in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Even China’s ‘balloon diplomacy’, as if to tell the US that it too has eyes in the near skies, may have carried an unintended message when caught. American acolytes the world over, especially on the streets, applauded US President Joe Biden for demonstrating the nation’s fire-power.

However, there were others who were quietly smiling to themselves over the ‘all-American over-kill’. Whether Xi was smiling or laughing his heart out, or was frowning is too early to decipher, in the absence of the proverbial ‘twitch of the lip’s end’ by Mao Zedong when an Indian diplomat greeted him.

In recent years, whether over Taiwan or now over the Ukraine issue, the US thought, and also made the world think that it was proactive and the other side was ‘reactive’. But in both cases, the US is seen as reacting to a situation where the other side was pro-active.

In Ukraine, whatever the political issue about the nation’s admittance into NATO in the past, the first shot that Russia fired provided some limited justification first, and made western reactions a fait accompli. The same cannot be said about Russia scrapping the New SALT negotiations and positioning tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, where the hard message is for NATO to go beyond arming Ukraine to fight the latter’s war more directly.

On Taiwan, South China and East China Seas, Beijing did whatever it wanted to do, in measured, slow doses, before the US ‘woke up’ (?). Washington reacted in ways and almost at one go, which did not possibly add up to China’s past actions and aggressions in instalments, at least in the eyes of the world.  

All of it means only one thing. That the free world still needs the US, but the US that consults with allies and friends on issues and pathways without acting unilaterally, and expecting them to walk its path, as in the Cold War era.  The Neo-Cold War is witness to emergence of new power-centres, both in economic and political terms.

During the Cold War era, for instance, no one expected India to have the economic muscle to tell the US and all the rest of its new-found friends where to draw the line with their unilateral sanctions when procuring cheap Russian oil. Even within the western bloc and NATO, France and Germany today are not what they were at the end of the Second World War.

They have always had a mind of their own, but now they have also acquired the economic muscle. More importantly, they have shed whatever political inhibitions that they had inherited at the end of the two Great Wars of the previous century. 

Clash of Civilisations

For nations like India especially – not that the US could look elsewhere — they cannot afford to lose sight of what is happening in the extended West Asian neighbourhood either. After facilitating an opening for China in the region and using its good offices to patch up with Iran, Saudi Arabia is now in talks with Syria for restoring bilateral ties.

Saudi Arabia, as may be recalled, had shut down its embassy in Damascus and packed up the Syrian envoy in Riyadh, in 2012, as an expression of support for the Syrian Opposition in the country’s civil war. With Russia on its side, the government troops seemingly won the war. It also ‘exposed’ the ‘American double-standards’ on terrorism, with the result, the US had little choice but to dump ISIS, which had its own agenda, which targeted the larger Islamic world and their rulers/ruling families.

Yet, too much need not be read into Saudi Arabia’s new-found love for one-time foes. In the midst of all this has been happening around, Riyadh hosted the first Indo-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Strategic Cooperation Dialogue with New Delhi. The two sides have since decided to fast-track the India-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

That is saying something, yes, but there is no denying the increasing Saudi/GCC strategy to move close to the centre in global affairs, without holding on to the American coat-tails, as in the past, or that of any other nation. Thus, the independent Saudi approach to affairs involving India-Pakistan relations should be welcome, but it could also extend to India-China equations, which may not always be welcome for New Delhi.

Interestingly, China’s ‘Tibetan policy’ is condemned in the West, the suppression of Uyghur protests also gets a lot of sympathetic ears in the West, especially the US. However, Buddhist nations in South and South-East Asia have mostly been silent over most Tibetan flare-ups over the past decades.

Likewise, Islamic nations the world over are not impressed by the western appropriation of what should be their concern on the Uyghur front – and they are not seemingly concerned, at least as yet. This dichotomy may have led to a situation where independent nations may see the twin Chinese actions as an ‘American over-kill’ all over again than the reality on the ground has clearly indicated from time to time.  

The same cannot be said about Israel’s ‘suppression’ of the Palestine voice in the occupied territories, especially – rather, about the general global reaction to the same, from time to time, whether it is by nations or in terms of street-opinion. It is in this context, the possible consolidation of ‘Islamic global opinion’ in political terms that would require a keen eye to decipher over the coming years.

Should such a course lead to a ‘clash of civilisations’, now or later, then it would still be a tactical victory for China, again without firing a single shot.  And that is what a Cold War is, including 21st century Neo-Cold War – isn’t it?

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views are personal. 

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