Imtiaz Rafi Butt
AS the year 2020 approaches its end, nations around the world, rich and poor, are gripped with challenges. Economic downturn, the Covid-19 pandemic, regional and international issues continue to grow everywhere. The IMF has termed the current year as “the Year of the Great Lockdown”. And in this chaos, there is another phenomenon which is equally significant and that is the geo-strategic power contest between two superpowers of the world, China and the United States. This power struggle between these two nations is set to have ramifications on the whole world. It is vital for both of these countries to avoid a direct confrontation path which would wreak havoc for many parts of the world. Restraint, diplomacy, consultation and prudent learning from history are needed. As the great philosopher Hegel concluded, “Those who do not learn from their past are doomed to repeat it”. What will be the fate of the world if the US-China power contest loses control? And what will it mean for the rest of the world? These are key questions that should be top agenda for all thinking minds of the world.
In a historical perspective, we can clearly see China out-pacing the United States. Academicians, researchers and analysts around the world are in major consensus that at this rate, China will overtake the US in GDP, GNP and military strength within a period ranging from 10 to 15 years. According to the famous writer Kishor Mahbubani, China is already winning and that it has lessons for all of us. What many researchers fail to see is the social, emotional and human fall out from this contest. Whenever a superpower steps ahead of another, there is a bitter enmity and conflict in the wake. Imagine if we go back in time and observe the destruction of the Mughal Empire at the hands of the British East India Company. The struggle is one of the most terrible chapters in the history of the sub-continent. Wars, mutiny, famine, displacement, degradation, lawlessness and mass murder became common place as the Mughal Empire descended into the oblivion. Before that, the dissolution of the German and the Turkish-Ottoman Empire at the end of World War-I laid the seeds of horrible conditions for people of many nations. The newly emerged powers displayed ruthless behaviours which are now a dark chapter of history. Countless other such examples can be quoted from history. Whenever a superpower defeats another, there is misery. The world must realize and come together that such a predicament is to be avoided at all costs in case of China and the US.
Another critical feature of the China-US geo-political contest is its global impact. Donald Trump has gone to great lengths to underrate China. He called Covid-19, “the Chinese virus”. The US Government repeatedly accused China of not doing enough to contain the spread of Covid-19. Not getting the expected results, the US Administration even targeted the WHO. Earlier, the US Government placed embargoes on Chinese exports and openly supported the anti-China groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the South China Sea dispute, the US is considering a military presence to pressure China into altering its stance, which seems highly unlikely. On the other hand, China has been bolstering its own defences. China has called the US “a bully” in many diplomatic exchanges. The Chinese authorities have been making all out efforts to dethrone the dollar from the international market.
Even so, the World Bank issued a report in the mid of 2020 that the Chinese currency would become the reserve currency, instead of dollar by 2025. Many nations are forced to choose sides or will have to do so in future. Many European, Central Asian and African countries are in a fix looking at investment and bail out possibilities as China emerges as the new economic power. China is forming alliances in every part of the world. The BRICS, OBOR and CPEC initiatives are glaring examples of its growing influence. The Beijing World Nation Expo 2019 attracted more nations than any other event in the US for decades. The US on the other hand is focused on military alliances. The US has joined hands with India, Australia and Japan to conduct military drills and displaying a power alliance against China. In all these adversarial activities, it is forgotten that all of us live on the same planet. The Covid-19 pandemic has vividly displayed that there is no isolation in the modern world. We are more inter-connected than we realize. Globalization can only be avoided in papers, not in real life. The electronic IT technologies, the internet, social networking, travel industry and corporate setup will continue to ensure that humanity and its connectivity are always at play. An event in any part of the world is seen by billions within minutes. News networks spread information across borders without any hurdles, regardless of what national governments deem right. The connectivity is one of the main reasons how Covid-19 spread to every part of the world starting from China in November, 2019. It is as if all human beings live in one household and a fire in one part will eventually catch up with other parts and affect everyone. In such a geo-political presence, a clash between superpowers should be replaced with meaningful dialogue and sharing of power. The accusations between US and China and the undercutting of funds for the WHO has only made the effort to curb Covid-19 unsteady. A similar case is that of Climate Change. China and the US have disagreed on carbon emissions and green technology compliance protocols. Although, China is taking the lead in accepting global warming mitigation strategies, the US is taking an alternate trajectory of “America First”. It is a power struggle gone awry.
The way forward is not fighting fire with fire as usually it is water that is needed to put out fires. The US-China power struggle is on a threatening trajectory. The analysis clearly shows that there is no long-term strategy in place. The collision course is set and it is already affecting all parts of the world. Nationalism and Individualism is on the rise, much like the fanatic nationalism of the Second World War and the Cold War between the (former) Soviet Union and the US, nothing productive ever comes of it. China is still a new nation achieving power; the need now is for the US to lead by example instead of attracting confrontation. Change is inevitable, progress is optional. The US should realize the potential of the “consultative style” of the Chinese Government. As Pakistan and Iran are now key partners in the OBOR initiative, more European countries are taking up their roles in the Silk Trade Route. These are opportunities that the US and its allies should not miss. The researcher Kishore Mahbubani has termed the impending conflict between China and the US as two monkeys fighting over a forest while the trees are burning. The two nations must come to terms and the United Nations should become the voice of reason. The only objective here is, not to repeat history. In the US-China geo-political contest, there is a probability of destruction but there is an even greater opportunity of development and peaceful co-existence.
—The writer is Chairman, Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.
Imtiaz Rafi Butt