During the last few months, the idea that we are on the verge of a new Cold War, which this time sees China as the rival to the U.S., has been transformed by both media and academics into a recurrent topic that made the headlines of several publications recently released. The intensification of the China-U.S. trade war, as well as the ongoing battle of narratives in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, marked by mutual allegations and intimidations, have been seen as preconditions for a new and open rivalry between the two powers.
Trump’s diplomatic line, as a matter of fact, exasperated U.S. relationship with China, which finally reacted and took an aggressive attitude while striving to get a greater say in international affairs in the face of the U.S. reprimand for infecting the world, violating human rights of the Uyghur minority, smothering Hong Kong and spying on Western users of TikTok. While the Beijing government embraced a new brand of diplomacy inspired by the famous Chinese blockbuster, the Wolf Warrior, in the U.S.-led West the anxieties about the Chinese threat were brought back to the mind of many experts of international politics.
In the Western political debate, the risk of a Chinese mounting assertiveness that would undermine the liberal nature of the international order got more plausible. All those who had talked about China’s rise as a threat for the West are now seen as unheard prophets, as the situation they theorized is getting more and more real.
Just a few years ago, in 2017, the realist scholar Graham Allison published a book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, which was turned into a classic piece of International Relations in a short time and is known by the public at large, too. Allison described the conflict among great powers as a consequence of the deadlock situation that occurs when the gap between an established power and an emerging one starts to close, creating, indeed, the “trap”. Analogously, China would pose an inevitable challenge to the U.S. and the liberal countries, as in the past other rising powers did with the hegemonic one – like in the case of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta narrated by Thucydides that inspired Allison’s archetype of great powers’ relations.
Portraying China as a threat we should protect against, however, is not, necessarily, a forward-looking posture. A sociological approach to the storytelling inquiry would suggest that prophecies become self-fulfilling whenever the agents tend to frame what happens in a context which they are familiar with, as if their actions contributed to the occurrence of an event that originally was only supposed. According to this logic, it is likely that the idea, nowadays very famous, of a new Cold War, or that of the Thucydides’ trap, might be distorting the facts, fuelling a version of international politics that is mainly consistent with – and functional to – the U.S. narrative, which actually prevents objective evaluations of the international politics. Therefore, the Western debate on China could be mostly affected by U.S. worries that are due to the fact that they are a hegemonic state that feels its authority is being questioned and observes the emergence of a competitive and powerful rival. This set of emotions, thus, has possibly made the U.S.-led West misconceive China’s behaviours and intentions and fear for the survival of the liberal international order that they greatly contributed to creating, just like – quoting Allison – “Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established”. If indeed it is ever proved that the diffusion of such narrative (that leaves China with no choice other than to be portrayed as a threat to the West) largely depends on the U.S. fears of losing its leading position, this would then be considered as a less trustworthy story.
In the meantime, however, this storytelling tends to annoy China that rather declares to be willing to partake on an equal footing with the West in global governance, as the Chinese President repeatedly affirmed, also in reply to the Trump administration’s accusations. Just a few weeks ago, on the occasion of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Xi Jinping in fact said “we will never seek hegemony, expansion or a sphere of influence, we have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country”.
The narrative of an alleged new Cold War, especially in the Western political debate, on the contrary, is overshadowing any other interpretation of recent shifts in international affairs, excluding that of a growing rivalry between the two great powers. This is implying a tangible escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China that today is exposing their relation even more to the risk of breakdown, by placing competition in the framework of an ideological battle.