A new Cold War is taking shape in the international political order but ideology would not be playing a dominant role in it, although we would be having some resonant echoes of the old Cold War in the developing situation. On the one side, is the US and its allies world-wide, on the other, Russia, China and those making common cause with them.
Over the past few months the US has been increasingly vocal about an “Indo-Pacific strategy”, which seemingly brings within its scope almost the entirety of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and their adjacent regions. This is an expansion geographically of the US’ former Asia-Pacific strategy, which essentially focused on the Pacific and the Northern Indian Oceans. Apparently, under the new ‘strategy’ the US would be seeking to expand its influence and control from North-East Asia to the West coast of the US via the Gulf, the Middle East and Africa. Quite understandably, this new ‘strategy’ is having Russia and China worried, among other powers. It could very well be the case these ambitions account, to a degree, for the numerous recent ‘incidents’ and confrontations between the US and Russian navies in some of these regions of contention. It would be up to these powers to prevent these ‘incidents’ from escalating into serious conflictual situations. The heightening diplomatic activity launched by the US with its ‘allies’; in Asia testify to these intensifying US ambitions. At the time of writing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing to visit Sri Lanka, India, Japan and South Korea from June 24th to 30th and these countries today constitute the main list of countries seen by the US as its ‘allies’.
Almost at the same time Chinese President Xi Jinping who made a state visit to Russia recently has gone on record as having said that China and Russia should cherish their enduring ties, ‘just as we cherish our own eyes.’ Xi went on to say that the ‘two countries will continue to connect the Belt and Road with the Eurasian Economic Union, promote the implementation of major strategic projects and tap the potential of cooperation in emerging areas’.
The Eurasian Economic Union, it must be noted, is a Russian centred economic bloc encompassing parts of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It is plain that by connecting the Chinese-led Belt and Road and the EEU, Russia and China are seeking to take their economic interaction to a considerable part of Asia and Eastern Europe. This is in addition to groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia and China are already closely cooperating in the economic field. During Xi’s visit, two exceptionally important declarations were signed between Russia and China. One was to ‘upgrade bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and the other to strengthen global strategic stability.’ Thus, the countries are in an unprecedented effort to qualitatively upgrade their relations to meet the emerging challenges of the new global political order. All this is taking place amidst US efforts to bolster its strategic and economic ties with its ‘allies’ in Asia, as mentioned. Sri Lanka is a case in point of intensifying US diplomatic activity aimed at, among other things, taking strategic cooperation between the states to new levels. Right now, two military cooperation agreements figuring prominently in US-Sri Lanka ties are being heatedly discussed among sections of the Sri Lankan public, including the country’s political opposition. The demand, essentially, is that such accords need to be discussed in parliament before being signed. A very pertinent point indeed, but poor and small Sri Lanka may not be having much of a choice, given its relative helplessness.
Accordingly, it is economics that are having the final say in the shaping of the new world order and Sri Lanka is just one among numerous hapless countries that are being cajoled into joining ‘cooperative agreements’ of US making. But how such states could collectively empower themselves to face these challenges is a subject by itself and beyond the scope of this column.
However, there are no ‘angels or demons’ in this evolving order. In as much as economic considerations, in the main, propel the US and its allies, the same goes for China and Russia. The international formations established by the respective sides are principally of an economic kind. The Belt and Road and intensifying ties between the US and India, besides the US’ relations with Japan and South Korea, drive home the point. In the main, the scramble between the camps would be for markets and investment opportunities globally. This is the reason why the ASEAN region could emerge as a flashpoint in the scramble for economic opportunity between the US and its major competitors, Russia and China. It does not follow that strategic and military links would emerge a poor second to these major power economic considerations. They will remain very important because economic aspirations ought to be strongly backed by military muscle.
However, we see in these developments the basic contours of the new international political and economic order. Whereas political ideology, that is liberal democracy versus communism, was the motive force of the Cold War that was, it is mainly economics that would drive the new order. Needless to say, economic rivalry could trigger military tensions if not managed effectively.
But the powers concerned should keep an eagle eye on these potential tensions because they could easily boil over. The US could be accused of doing nothing to alleviate the situation by intensifying its trade war with China and seeking increasingly confrontational ties with Iran, a power that cannot be treated lightly. We would do well to caution the Trump administration against entertaining hopes of building ‘white’ controlled economic and military empires world-wide. The devastating World Wars of the century past demonstrate some important lessons for empire builders. Such wild dreams and schemes have only global devastation as their end result.