Even the small semblance of tolerance between Washington and Beijing has all but evaporated in the midst of the coronavirus. At a time where countries needed to come together to address this international crisis as a world body politic, Trump and Xi have been pushing blame on each other for this, each accusing the other country of foisting this virus on the world. One is threatening trade wars, the other is increasing its military presence in the South China Sea. On and on the tensions increase but, unlike Cold Wars of history, this one will not be two defined camps vying for control. The old model is shattered and the new one is undefined and confusing.
Really? A Cold War?: Relations between the two countries weren't stellar to begin with. Between a trade war and increasing rhetoric over military movements in the South China Sea, Beijing and Washington have been at odds. The Coronavirus will be the final push over the edge, not because of the virus itself, but by how each country is handling it and how it perceives the other has handled it. Both leaders, rather than work together have pushed the blame on each other. The Trump administration feels that China is to blame for the virus and some American officials have gone so far as to push for international censure of China's perceived culpability. China, on the other side, has used its state-run media and political operatives to spin reactions by, as they say, 'America's irresponsible and incompetent elites' as racist and xenophobic and have gone so far as to blame the US military for planting the virus in Wuhan. Of course, there is much more to a cold war than issue-based tensions. Cold Wars are ideological and systemic - pitting a political or economic system against another to see which one can outlast or outachieve the other. Which camp, so-to-speak, can wield greater influence over the largest part of the world. It's no secret that the Chinese footprint has been growing nearly exponentially in recent years, seeking greater international influence - trying to mold the world into one that is favorable to the Chinese system. Economically, China is nearly everywhere - in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe and Oceana. It's a significant trade partner to nearly every country on the planet and its economic influence is growing stronger by the day. The US, conversely, has been looking more inward in recent years and while many US allies still see America as a security bulwark, many of those same allies see China as an economic powerhouse that their own economies cannot do without. The US wants to maintain the current global order and see's China's increased economic influence as a threat not only to global harmony but to the system that won the last cold war. This is where the battle lines are being drawn. The New Global Order: Historically Cold Wars have been well defined between two disparate camps. There has never really been much, if any, overlap between the two sides - you either belong to one or the other. Things have changed though. The end of the last Cold War ushered in a significant globalist push and that was the modus operandi of the world order over the course of 30 some odd years. The US remained a strong world economy, a military power, and a global leader, essentially filling in and taking over much of the vacuum the former USSR left after it collapsed. In the early to mid-1990s, while this was happening, China started to grow. Not militarily mind you, not like the US or the former USSR, but economically. China liberalized it's economy and grew to what it is today - a banking center and essentially the world's manufacturing hub. This drew in countries from all across the geopolitical spectrum, creating economic allies that transcended ideology and while many US allies value their relationship with the US, they also value (and need) their economic relationship with China. The issues this is creating for the US are well known. Let take, for example, the Five Eyes Alliance which has been in place since the end of WWII and comprised of Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the US. Yes, these countries are militarily and politically close to the United States however, China is the biggest trading partner to two of them and a large part of the economy of the other three. This model is not limited to just this group. Many NATO members are part of or have an interest in China's Belt and Road initiative, others (in the past also the US) have given China favored trading status. How can there be two camps when interdependence has developed across ideological lines? There can't. China is not the USSR: The former Soviet Union was nearly equal to the US in military strength and reach. They had bases and troops in many places around the world and involved in as many foreign adventures as the US was. China's not doing that. Militarily, China is extremely local - sure they dabble in the South China Sea and would more than likely be militarily involved in a new Korean War one way or the other but Beijing has zero interest in foreign military adventures. The first (and only) Chinese military base was established in 2017 in Djibouti. It's a naval base that is charged with defending Chinese shipping through parts of the Indian Ocean known to have problems in piracy - no military purpose, just protecting Chinese commerce. Nearly 30 years after the collapse of the USSR, China is richer and much more stable than the Soviet Union ever was and this gives China immense international influence. The Chinese reach is economic and diplomatic - tools that affect a broader range of countries than the military strength of the USSR or even the US ever did during the last Cold War. By updating their communist system into 'Socialism: Chinese-Style' they wove into their planned economy some aspects of capitalism that allowed state-run companies to grow into some of the biggest corporations in the world. Conversely, the USSR at its peak had an economy smaller than that of Japan. This is not to say that there could never be military tensions between Washington and Beijing. With the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, Washington invited Moscow and Beijing to work out a new one. Beijing refused, stating that any US deployment of missiles in that part of the world would force China to take countermeasures. China has been steadily modernizing and updating it's military for years now but that's as far as it goes. Beijing, it seems is not willing to sacrifice economic growth for military power. Is America Alone?: The friction between China and the US seems in many cases to be just that, between China and the US. Many American allies have a very different experience with China and Americans are coming to terms with how hard it actually is to persuade allies that America is a reliable partner with viable alternatives to what China is offering. This sets precedents that have before been unknown in a bipolar world that a cold war creates. It illustrates that unlike past polaric shifts, international relations have become extremely global and very much intertwined, too much so to be able to split two camps down the middle like the post-WWII era. Look only at the Huawei 5G issue to see an example of this. It's really hard for the US to coax allies against China when half of the NATO alliance and 2 of the 5 Five Eyes allies are paying China to build their 5G networks. The US isn't offering any 'market-ready alternatives' to allies for technology or trade or any number of other things that China is offering. Western allies see China as a market that they can't pass up. This isn't Andropov's USSR. This is a strong, diverse economy made up of one of the largest single markets in the world. Many western allies actually are caught in the middle, between a US that is their major security partner and a China that is their major trading partner. Add to this a US that has illustrated a foreign policy that sometimes doesn't carry over from administration to administration and you have a cold war, party of one.