17 January 2022

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COLD WAR 2.0

For the first time in history, China openly challenges US claims to global leadership

Author:

15.04.2021

The first American-Chinese summit took place at the end of March, just two months after the election of the new White House administration. The venue of the event–Anchorage, Alaska, the coldest state in the United States–was unlikely accidental and reflected the current realities of the relationship between the two largest global economies.

Indeed, the negotiations were more confrontational than cooperative. In response to the edifying tone of Americans, the Chinese said, in no less prescriptive way, that "the United States does not represent the world, but only the government of the United States." Apparently, it’s the first time in history that the US claims to world leadership have been openly contested.

If the purpose of the Anchorage summit was to enable both sides to define their strategic differences, as well as the red lines and demands in order to avoid any misunderstandings, then the meeting was successful. But the interests and demands of the parties were so different and expressed so explicitly that there is little hope that the parties can reach any compromise or reconciliation. Rather, a protracted struggle around these differences is more likely.

Conflicts over differences in national values and basic interests, as well as mutual distrust, can dominate and negatively affect rivalry in the economic, political, technological, military and other areas.

Current tensions even risk escalating the conflict, including regional armed clashes in the East and South China Seas. In other words, all factors to define the existing American-Chinese relations as the modern version of the Cold War are available. After the summit, the head of the US delegation, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, called it "the largest geopolitical test of the 21st century."

 

Thucydides' trap

In 2012, China proposed to the US a new concept of establishing relations between the great powers, where the US and China would respect each other's fundamental interests. For China, fundamental interests mean respecting each other's de facto sphere of influence. The US administration concluded that the Chinese version of the deal implied not only Taiwan and Tibet, but also the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Unwilling to accept these terms, the Obama administration rejected them.

Graham Allison believes that if China remains committed to the same "new form of relations between the great powers," there is no reason to expect that Biden's point of view will differ from Obama's. Allison has coined the term Thucydides' Trap in his 2017 book ‘Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?’

Examining the causes of conflicts in world history, Allison found many similarities with the 30-year Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. The rise of Athens was a necessary but insufficient condition for the outbreak of war. Human emotions also played a role. Perhaps it was fear, pride, and misconceptions about honour that kindled the flames of that war.

Allison argues that over the past five hundred years, there have been at least 16 similar examples of large-scale confrontations between the dominant states and emerging powers challenging their dominance. Only four of these conflicts ended peacefully.

 

Dispute over worldviews

Current realities have little similarities with the post-war Cold War of the 20th century. Unlike the USSR, China has become the main driver of the global economic growth. Last year, it was the only major economy to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now provides 18% of global GDP.

China's share of global trade is three times that of the Soviet Union in 1959. The country recently exceeded the US as the EU's largest trading partner. In general, China is the main trading partner of 64 countries, while the United States is of 38.

According to forecasts, by 2028 China will surpass the US as the largest economy in the world. This will happen five years earlier than was forecast. This is due to the pandemic, which threw the US economy back 3.5%, while the Chinese one grew by 2.3%.

Obviously, the economic potential of the past and current rival of the United States are incomparable. However, both Cold Wars have similarities and fundamental differences, which are not rooted in economic tools.

Confrontation of the US with the USSR in the past and with China now are based on ideological values. Both then and now there is a dispute of worldviews - the struggle of democracies with totalitarian regimes. But the tools of confrontation become increasingly different almost every day. One of these powerful tools is artificial intelligence (AI).

 

Wars of the future

AI technologies are still in their infancy, but they will become the driving force behind economic progress and national security very soon. Undoubtedly, the winners of the wars of the future will be those who have the most advanced AI applied in various industries.

China has become undisputed world leader in most areas already - from facial recognition and financial technology to drones and 5G .

In 2001, China did not have any of the existing 500 supercomputers in the world. In 2019, it already had 219 of them, while the US had only 116. If the first Chinese supercomputers used only American semiconductors, today they are entirely based on local chips and periferials.

Six years ago, only two of the twenty largest Internet companies in the world were Chinese. Today there are nine of them. Among the top ten AI startups in the world, there are five American and Chinese each. China surpassed the US in the number of public patents on AI technologies back in 2015. Of the known top five makes of commercial drones, three are Chinese and only one is American.

In face recognition technology, China has recently become the only researcher and developer in the world. The US and its Western partners do not accelerate research in this area for ethical reasons, while China has no such moral barriers.

This is the main question of our time. If the AI race between the US and China follows the path of rivalry between the US and USSR in developing and deploying nuclear weapons, will rivals be able to stop before they reach the point of mutual destruction?

Nuclear technology of these rival nations has created an overwhelming common interest in preventing nuclear war, which can make both the ultimate victims. Thanks to this condition, it was possible to ensure a certain degree of caution and relative stability over the past seven decades without wars between the great powers.

Are there common interests between the US and China that could motivate them to adapt to realities and learn from the previous Cold War? We cannot see such barriers in artificial intelligence yet. There is also no observable intention on either side to search for them.

But at least it is good that the US has matured in understanding the fatal danger of lagging behind this race. In March, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence published 700 pages of the results of two years of research on the development and application of AI in the country and the world. The report indicates that the US is ill-equipped to defend against or compete with China in artificial intelligence.

Authors of the report–experts and leaders of large AI companies, as well as cybersecurity experts–warn that if the United States fails to significantly accelerate the understanding and use of AI technology, it will face unprecedented threats to its national security and economic stability.

Commissioners will speak before the Congress in the coming days. In fact, their proposals will get a strong bi-partisan support.

 

Peaceful muscle-flexing

Confrontational tone of the Anchorage talks has been widely accepted as a manifestation of a likely deterioration in the US-China relations and emergence of various crises. But the Biden administration is looking at it differently, according to the Atlantic Council.

This first encounter may be followed by others, but they are necessary. First, to reassure the allies of the United States of strong commitment to protecting democracy from Chinese challenges. Secondly, to make it clear that the US and its allies and partners will stand firm on the issues of greatest concern, including the definition of global standards for new technologies, protecting human rights and democratic freedoms, supporting an international rules-based system of relations. Finally, the muscle-flexing in Anchorage was also prepared for the internal American audience. The White House is trying to avoid any criticism from the Republican Party for its soft stance towards China. Given the equal representation of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, Joe Biden needs some room to manoeuvrer to build support for working with China to tackle many global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, health care, and more.



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