In recent weeks, the United States has threatened to block the Chinese app TikTok in the U.S.’s virtual territory and has sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. These two events crystallize the confrontation between China and the U.S.: in the digital world and in Asia, particularly in the Pacific.
The epidemic ended up occasioning wide-ranging reflections on the confrontation between China and the United States, leading us to look back to the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR that was a defining feature of the post-war period until the Soviet collapse. However, the current situation is completely different from the one back then. First of all, there is no ideological clash like in the past, and secondly, the U.S .and the USSR had economies that were completely disconnected from each other, while today this is no longer the case for the United States and China: they are both enmeshed in the mechanisms of global capitalism, with Beijing taking up the mantle of defender of the free market against Trump’s protectionism.
The Cold War was also a period in which the nightmare of nuclear war, of a world-ending conflict, hung over everyone’s heads, which is not the case today, although there is no shortage of real military risks. In the Chinese magazine Caixin, Yan Xuetong, professor at the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, recalled that in the first half of the Cold War, “countries were categorized as Western, Eastern Bloc or the Third World … In the second half, states were identified as developed and developing. In the coming decades, countries will be likely categorized into two superpowers, the highly digitalized and the low-digitalized or under-connected.”
The rivalry between the U.S. and China has now acquired a new dimension that will eventually influence other sectors and change the “political” geography of the entire planet. In the Financial Times, John Thornhill wrote: “If cold war 1.0 revolved around military hardware and the threat of nuclear annihilation, then cold war 2.0 is more about civil software and technological innovation. The internet is emerging as a technology of control, not just communication. Whoever runs the global Internet of Things, connecting billions of devices, will have a geostrategic advantage.”
And China is strengthening its position in this regard—it is enough to recall the role of Huawei. In the FT article, Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, is quoted as saying that “China is becoming more powerful technologically and can easily surpass the US if we do not act.” The right action, according to Atkinson, would have to be the development of a national industrial strategy, something that has been lost due to the withdrawal of the government from its role in research and development funding.
Today, the U.S. federal government spends less on research and development “as a proportion of gross domestic product, than it did in 1955.” The irony, concludes Thornhill, “is that China’s leaders may have learnt more from American history and its victory in the first cold war than has the U.S. political class. Technological innovation is a national security issue.”
In this regard, technological strength is now measured not only in terms of profits and security, but also in terms of influence, because the virtual playing field is shifting toward forms of digital sovereignism or “alliances.” In this case as well, China is an example that many will follow, adapting the concept of territorial sovereignty to its virtual space. We should realize that Trump is merely replicating what Beijing has been doing for decades now.
Again, we might recall India blocking TikTok, or the indecision of many European countries on how to either reject or accept China’s 5G technological offer: the new division into blocks will be a consequence of the technological choices that each country will make.
Then, there is a military aspect that contributes to making the current situation profoundly different from the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR: its geographical center of gravity is Asia, not Europe, because—as Alan Dupont writes in The Diplomat—“the epicenter of global commerce and trade has moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific, reflecting Asia’s rise and Europe’s decline. The United States and China are both Pacific powers, so their rivalry will be felt most keenly in the Indo-Pacific, particularly at sea,” with the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong as new areas of possible conflict.
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