Almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, history may be repeating itself, as China and the United States seem locked in what some are branding the world’s new “cold war”.
Former Trump administration strategist Steve Bannon sees it in even more dramatic terms, telling CNBC recently: “We’re at war with China.”
Only days earlier, he said that US President Donald Trump knows he needs to “unite the West against the rise of a totalitarian China”. And only this week, in seemingly threatening tones, he told the Financial Times: “The Chinese should be worried about Trump.”
Those comments might seem inflammatory, but they’re actually wholly consistent with Mr Bannon’s nationalist, sabre-rattling narrative in propelling Mr Trump to the White House.
In the tell-all White House exposé, Fire and Fury, author Michael Wolff described a meeting between Mr Bannon and the former Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
“‘The real enemy’, said an on-point Bannon …‘was China. China was the first front in a new cold war. […] China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right’,” Wolff wrote.
Mr Trump this week fired a new salvo in that war, imposing a third round of trade tariffs, taking the value of affected Chinese goods to $US250 billion ($348 billion) – about half of China’s total annual exports to the US.
And that came against a bizarrely chummy backdrop of China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin downing vodka and caviar and flipping pancakes together in Vladivostok, where Mr Xi declared their “friendship is getting stronger all the time”.
Tu Xinquan, a professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics told the Financial Times “the risk of China and the US sliding into a new cold war is increasing”, which would “be a nightmare for China, the US and the world”.
But Pradeep Taneja, a University of Melbourne expert in Chinese politics, economics and international relations tells The New Daily that while things are tense, we’re a long way from a cold war.
“I think this is something completely different,” Dr Taneja says. “The two economies [China and US] are so intertwined that it’s very difficult to think of the old cold war.
“But at the same time I think there is a consensus emerging in the US that we can’t keep allowing China to grow at our expense.
“We don’t know what shape it’s going to eventually take, but there is a consensus across the political divide in the US that China has taken advantage of the US and ‘we need to do something about it’.”
Director of the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute Roland Rajah agrees, saying that 21st-century China is very different proposition to a Cold War-era Soviet Union.
“China is integrated into the world’s economic system the way the Soviet Union never was,” Mr Rajah says.
“They [China and US] are still major trading and investment partners, and there’s a lot of financial integration between the two, such as China using the US currency, for example … it’s still a powerful relationship at this time, and it would take a lot to unravel this.”
Mr Rajah and Dr Taneja agree that ramping up tariffs will do little to ease the US trade deficit, nor would a liberalisation of the Chinese economy to allow more private competition to areas controlled by state-owned enterprises.
As Dr Taneja notes: “Trump has this notion that trade should be balanced, but the deficit is so big that even if China were prepared to buy more American stuff, the US doesn’t have enough stuff to sell to China.”
He also believes a less amicable relationship will make it “harder to get the support of China where the US and the West need China’s support, such as the ongoing negotiations with North Korea, for example.”
But with a reluctance to giving in to bullying ingrained in Chinese culture, and Mr Trump’s penchant for always emerging a ‘winner’, this war may still have a while to play out.