Moving beyond the US–China Cold War cliche

Author: Suisheng Zhao, University of Denver A bipolar world is emerging as the US–China rivalry dominates virtually every aspect of international politics. Bipolarity tends to exaggerate ideological hostility and encourages attempts to build exclusive alliances. Casting the rivalry as a battle between democracy and autocracy, the Biden administration has increased public criticism of China’s human […] The post Moving beyond the US–China Cold War cliche first appeared on East Asia Forum.

Moving beyond the US–China Cold War cliche

Author: Suisheng Zhao, University of Denver

A bipolar world is emerging as the US–China rivalry dominates virtually every aspect of international politics. Bipolarity tends to exaggerate ideological hostility and encourages attempts to build exclusive alliances. Casting the rivalry as a battle between democracy and autocracy, the Biden administration has increased public criticism of China’s human rights violations and countered Chinese manoeuvring in the Pacific.

Portraying China as an existential threat, the United States has attempted to forge an alliance of democracies. Beijing has taken tit-for-tat actions to confront the United States and highlighted the superiority of the China model of authoritarianism in coping with the COVID-19 crisis. Enhancing strategic partnerships with Russia, Pakistan, Iran and other countries, Beijing has attempted to build a global ‘antihegemonic’ coalition.

But China’s ideological hostility is exaggerated. Beijing has not defined itself as the vanguard to transplant its systems throughout the world like the Soviet Union promoted communism and the United States promoted democracy. China’s version of authoritarianism — advanced through high-tech surveillance — does not offer a morally compelling alternative to liberal democracy for most countries.

Beijing is more afraid of Washington’s advocacy of expanding democracy into China than the United States is afraid of China’s authoritarianism. Instead of engaging in a determined effort to spread autocracy, Beijing has constructed an information firewall and tightened domestic ideological control. Rejecting liberal values as universal, China has sought primarily to make the world more accommodating to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

The ideological threat posed by the United States is also exaggerated. No longer the beacon of democracy, once almost-universal admiration has given way to disappointment over the displays of racial tensions, political polarisation, socioeconomic inequality and xenophobia. The devastating results of the United States using force to spread democracy, illustrated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have undermined support for democracy and generated anti-Americanism. US power has been in relative decline and its resilience has been seriously tested. The United States must put its own house in order before it can successfully wage a principled campaign against China.

Attempts to build exclusive alliances are also misperceived. US–China bipolarity does not match the classic vision of a colliding set of equivalent great powers. The United States and China are superpowers and are competing for dominance, but the European Union, Russia, Japan and India remain independent and may upset the power balance.

Many US allies and partners don’t want to be squeezed in between. They have different economic and strategic priorities, and varying threat perceptions. US President Joe Biden has faced up-hill battles to enlist like-minded nations against China. With no illusion about US strength, these countries have weighed the costs and benefits and made their decisions accordingly. Navigating the ever-changing rivalry, many US allies have stood up to China because of its threats to their economic and strategic interests but have also not decisively taken the US side and even confronted the US to safeguard their own interests. The announcement of AUKUS saw Australia cut its $66 billion diesel-electric submarine deal with France. Calling it a ‘stab in the back’, Paris reacted furiously and recalled its ambassadors to both the US and Australia. AUKUS has strained relations with America’s oldest European ally.

Similarly, Beijing has not built an anti-American alliance based on an ideological litmus test, but on complementary grievances against the threats posed by the United States. China’s strategic partnerships are more transactional than sentimental.

The world is not split into two rigid ideological and geopolitical blocs yet.

The delicate balance of power between the United States and China has further complicated the emerging bipolarity. Chinese President Xi Jinping has approached Washington from a perceived position of strength, no longer bending to pressure and accommodating its demands without conditions. But China’s projected confidence tends to paper over its domestic challenges and insecurity. It is unclear if China can become the first authoritarian regime to avoid the middle-income trap that has kept many emerging economies from becoming high-income countries.

China has spent enormous sums to modernise its military which still can hardly match the US or project itself globally. But China does not have to match US power to sustain the rivalry. Going far beyond the tottering command economy that defined the Soviet Union in its final years, China has built advanced and broad-based technology and a dynamic, globally competitive economy. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is far from an ideologically disillusioned and exhausted power. With Chinese suspicion of the United States at an all-time high, US hostility has supercharged Xi’s popularity for standing up to US pressure.

Washington has never faced a rival like Beijing. The two powers, incapable of dominating each other, have dictated the durability of the bipolarity. China cannot expect the United States to accept its authoritarian system, and Washington cannot alter Beijing’s intrinsic values or stop its rise.

Although no single power is likely to create a war on its own, there is a real possibility that missteps could lead to escalation and violent conflict. The leaders in both countries must find ways to compete constructively.

Suisheng Zhao is Professor and Director of the Center for China–US Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is Editor-in Chief of The Journal of Contemporary China. His most recent publication is: The US–China Rivalry in the Emerging Bipolar World: Hostility, Alignment, and Power Balance.

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Mandatory Lockdown Ordered in Ghulja Amid COVID Surge in Northern Xinjiang

Residents say the measure imposes additional hardship on their families.

Mandatory Lockdown Ordered in Ghulja Amid COVID Surge in Northern Xinjiang

Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have implemented comprehensive coronavirus prevention measures and a mandatory lockdown of residents in Ghulja in response to a new outbreak during a peak tourism period, prompting concern by Uyghurs that their families will find it harder to make ends meet.

Locals in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city in far northern Xinjiang near Kazakhstan, have taken to social media to express their concern about the COVID-19 measures inflicting more hardship on them given that many families have already been devastated by the impact of China’s system of internment camps that have deprived them of their breadwinners.

Though over 70 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion people has been fully vaccinated, the country is struggling to contain sporadic outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Health officials in Ghulja began conducting citywide nucleic-acid testing, a type of diagnostic test that directly detects the virus, in early October after two asymptomatic infections were found in Qorghas (Huocheng), about 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Ghulja, China’s state-run Global Times reported.

Officials closed Ghulja’s expressway on Oct. 3 and suspended rail travel and flights, advising travelers to wait inside hotels until they were tested, the report said. They also have imposed an indefinite lockdown on city residents.

The move came amid China’s Golden Week public holiday from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 during which hundreds of millions of people were expected to travel domestically. Many Chinese remained at home, however, because government officials advised against unnecessary travel and gatherings to prevent further COVID-19 virus outbreaks.

Health authorities in Ghulja told RFA that they are monitoring the situation but that they could not disclose the number of people infected with the virus as they had done at the beginning of 2020.

“It can't be reported,” one official told RFA.

Chinese media outlets meanwhile are reporting on the situation not based on medical information, but rather according to the directives of the ruling Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.

‘Be brave, my people of Ghulja’

Measures implemented during the health crisis in Xinjiang have affected the region’s 12 million Uyghurs more than they have the Han Chinese who live there, Uyghur sources told RFA.

The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang enjoys the special protection of the Chinese state, they said, though Uyghur families face daily financial hardship trying to eke out a living with many adults now held in internment camps.

China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others in the camps since 2017, while dismissing widely documented evidence that it has mistreated Muslims living inside and outside the camps — including testimony from former detainees and guards describing widespread abuses in interviews with RFA and other media outlets.

With the vast majority of the workforce now in camps and prisons, residents who need laborers for maintenance and building work have expressed apprehension that the indefinite COVID-19 lockdown will make their lives even more difficult.

“Be brave, my people of Ghulja, who have been trapped in their homes since October 3rd. … Especially the businesspeople who depend on daily income. Be patient, there is wisdom in everything,” wrote one Uygur resident on social media.

Residents in Ghulja’s Khorgos Mazar, Jelilyuzi, Onyar, and Dongmazar districts told RFA by phone that their doors have been locked from the outside and they have been trapped in their homes for at least a week.

“The doors are locked, sealed, and we are sitting at home without leaving,” said one resident.

Because authorities have ordered no information about the situation to be released during the lockdown, most residents said that the sudden imposition of stay-at-home orders has made it impossible for them to go out and shop for food.

The inability of most residents to move around, or even to go outside into their front yards and backyards, indicates the severity of the restrictions, they said.

Residents also complained that the unexpected lockdown has barred them from going to work and from accessing routine medical care.

Threats of ‘training centers’

The head of one 10-family unit — a social structure set up by Chinese authorities in early 2017 to maintain control over Uyghurs by making one person responsible for each group — said that the strict implementation of lockdown rules, along with a warning that those who violate the rules would be taken to “training centers,” have terrorized local residents.

“If we lack food, we need to go get food, but now we can’t do this because it’s breaking the rules,” he said.

One village Communist Party secretary in Ghulja said officials told residents not to leave their homes.

“We have told them that they should know that if they violate the rules, we will hand them over to the authorities, and the authorities will send them to ‘training,’” he said.

Because of the lockdown, a pensioner in the Ghulja village of Qash had been unable to take two cows with an unidentified disease to a veterinary hospital or to call a veterinarian.

“He told me his two cows are dead,” said head of the 10-family unit. “They would have been saved if a veterinarian could have come.”

Instead, the two pedigree cows, which were the pensioner's main source of income to provide for the 12 children of his three sons detained in internment camps, died in the cowshed, he said.

Other Uyghur families, especially those who have had to rely on charity and community donations, said they now facing food shortages and possible starvation under the lockdown.

A Jelilyuzi district resident, who is facing a food shortage, told RFA that there were many more people in the community like him who were in the same situation.

“Instead of eating three meals a day, we now eat only one meal a day,” he said. “There are many others like us in this neighborhood.”

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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