Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab world and the New Cold War

What are the implications of the New Cold War between the United States, Russia and China for the Arab world, asks Hicham Mourad

Putin and Trump

The United States launched a trade war against China on 6 July that Beijing has described as the largest in world economic history. The administration of US President Donald Trump has imposed tariffs of up to 25 per cent on Chinese imports worth $34 billion, and China has responded by taking similar measures against US imports of the same value. 

This means that the goods of the two countries subject to customs duties now amount to $86 billion. Trump has also threatened to impose new tariffs on further Chinese imports worth $200 billion, and Beijing has said that if this happens it will reciprocate. This has prompted the US president to threaten to impose customs duties on China’s total imports to the United States, which reached $505 billion last year. 

To justify the imposition of tariffs, which are a form of sanctions on China, Washington has accused Beijing of pursuing unfair trade policies that have enabled it to achieve a large trade surplus with the United States of $375 billion. It has repeatedly accused China of stealing industrial secrets and intellectual property rights, facilitating the forcible transfer of technology through joint ventures, and deliberately weakening the value of its national currency (the yuan) to facilitate Chinese imports into US markets.

 Washington has submitted proposals to Beijing containing a set of tough trade conditions in return for the abolition of customs duties on its goods. These conditions, which would be very difficult for Beijing to accept, aim to reduce the US trade deficit with China and create a balance of trade between the two countries.

Whatever the course this trade dispute will take between the world’s two most powerful economies and casting a shadow over the global economy, it points to a deeper competition for leadership and the domination of the global order. The conflict between the United States, on the one hand, and China, as well as Russia, on the other, both of which oppose American hegemony, has taken various political, economic and military forms that are being referred to as the New Cold War or the Cold War II in reference to the First Cold War that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1980s and opposed the Western camp to the Eastern Bloc. 

The term New Cold War has been used frequently in recent years with reference to the tension between the West and Russia. In April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the Cold War is back with a vengeance” on the occasion of the military strikes launched on 14 April by the United States, the UK and France against the Syrian regime in response to an alleged chemical attack on Douma, a suburb of Damascus. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev also noted in February 2016 that “we have returned to a New Cold War.”

It is against this background that the US-China trade dispute can be understood as a manifestation of a global struggle for hegemony launched by Washington to limit the Chinese economy’s ability to outweigh its US counterpart or at least to delay the achievement of superiority. China’s economy, now ranked second after the US, is expected to become the world’s most powerful economy by 2030, with a total GDP of $38 trillion and a surplus of $23.4 trillion. The gap is expected to widen over time as China’s GDP reaches $58.5 trillion in 2050, compared to $34.1 trillion for America. China’s growing economic strength will also translate into growing military power and world political influence.

This is what the United States fears and seeks to prevent or delay. Regarding its military strength, the United States remains at the forefront of world military spending at $610 billion in 2017, equivalent to 35 per cent of the global total, followed by China at $228 billion, or 13 per cent of the total. 

Despite this vast difference, a close look at the data shows a narrowing of the gap between the two countries over the past few years. According to statistics provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China ranked first in the world in increasing expenditure on armaments, reaching a 110 per cent increase from 2008 to 2017. While China’s arms expenditure was only 5.8 per cent of global spending from 1999 to 2008, this now stands at 13 per cent, while the US share in the same period has shrunk from 42 per cent to 35 per cent.

The present approach of the Trump administration towards the containment of China is not new. In 2011, former US president Barack Obama announced a new strategy for US foreign policy based on a focus on Asia and specifically on curbing China’s growing economic and military power. This policy was known as the US military, economic and diplomatic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards Asia. The difference between the present and former US administrations is one of style, since Trump’s policy is more aggressive, explaining his current “trade war” against China. 

Another example of this newly aggressive style was the Taiwan Travel Act signed by Trump in March that encourages reciprocal visits by officials from the US and Taiwan. It breaks Washington’s commitment to respect the One-China Policy it has pledged to follow since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, and the new law has angered Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be part of China and has demanded its inclusion in the motherland. 

The Trump administration has also focused on military power to deter and counter its international rivals. In February, the Pentagon announced an increase of 10 per cent in the US defence budget over the coming two years after a decline in recent years. As a result, US military spending, including the development of new nuclear weapons, will increase to $716 billion. In this context, Washington will seek to block Beijing’s aspiration to establish its hegemony over Southeast Asia, particularly by sending US warships to the South China Sea and conducting joint exercises with countries opposed to China’s ambitions in the region.

Trump and Xi Jinping

THE ARAB WORLD: It is no wonder, then, that Trump has stressed on more than one occasion that China and Russia have become strong rivals of the United States on the global level. However, US experts agree that the biggest threat comes from China because of its enormous economic power, which will inevitably be reflected in its military strength and global political influence. 

The new US National Security Strategy announced last December by the US Department of Defense confirmed that China and Russia have become US adversaries for power and influence and are working against its global interests. In January, US Defense Secretary James Mattis stressed in his presentation of the US National Defense Strategy that competition with the world’s major powers and not counter-terrorism was the top priority of the US. 

This explains the relative decline in the interest of the United States in the Arab world and the Middle East in general and its avoidance of involvement in its crises. This relative withdrawal from the region is not new and came about during the period in office of Obama, whose first priority in the Arab world was to withdraw US troops from Iraq. He also avoided interfering in the military conflicts in Syria, Libya or Yemen. Trump then followed suit. 

However, the growing threat of terrorism in the Arab world, with the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) group and its control of vast territories in Iraq and Syria forced Washington to temporarily change its plans to face this unexpected situation. After the defeat of IS thanks to the participation of many countries in the region and the world in the International Coalition set up to fight the terrorist organisation, the United State re-focused on the greatest threat to its hegemony, which is the rapid growth of China’s power and growing Russian assertiveness on the global stage.

The American military establishment was partly behind this change of course. The Cold War era was good for US military contractors since fighting Communism meant buying major equipment like aircraft carriers, tanks, ballistic missiles, and so on. The United States has spent billions of dollars on the war on terrorism, but this war has not required so many heavy weapons and certainly not the type that would be used in any possible conflict with the great powers and their regular armies. 

With the change of the US Security Strategy to focus on China and Russia, the US military has found the enemy it prefers. “We like the clarity of big wars,” one Pentagon official told the US magazine the New Yorker.

What is new is the American view of the danger posed by Moscow’s return to the international stage. Obama considered Russia to be a second-class power because the Russian economy is much weaker and far from being able to compete with its American counterpart. Russian GDP weighs in at only $1.2 trillion, while that of the United States is $18.6 trillion. At the time of the First Cold War, the economy of the former Soviet Union was between 49 and 57 per cent the size of that of the United States (in the period from 1960 to 1975). 

Obama also saw Russia as smaller geographically and weaker diplomatically and militarily than the former Soviet Union. Many of the countries it had relied on as buffer zones and markets during the First Cold War changed sides after the collapse of the Soviet Union and joined NATO and/or the European Union. Finally, Russia, unlike the former Soviet Union, is integrated into the world economy, which gives the United States and the West in general more leverage over it than was possible before. Its economy is not very diversified, and it relies heavily on the export of energy products such as natural gas and oil, which gives the West a means of pressure that did not exist during the time of the former Soviet Union. 

In this regard, the US believes that the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatists in the east of Ukraine harmed the Russian economy. 

In accordance with his inward-looking foreign policy of “America first”, which means a withdrawal from world affairs, Trump has sought to cultivate a friendship with his Russian counterpart as a means of resolving the crises plaguing the world, and he has said that he admires the “strength” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. However, Trump has been forced by the US Congress and other state institutions, including the US military and intelligence services, to take a firm stance against the challenges posed by Russian policy to US interests, including the alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections in 2016. 

In March, Trump announced sanctions against Russia, some of which were in a bill on sanctions against Moscow that Trump reluctantly promulgated last August after it had been adopted almost unanimously by the two chambers of the US Congress. The bill required the administration to identify and punish companies and individuals doing business with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors. 

Irritated by the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and Moscow’s behaviour in the Crimea and Syria, Congress included Russia with Iran and North Korea in a general bill on sanctions. Trump was opposed to the legislation because he believed it encroached on his presidential powers and because he did not want to make relations with Russia more difficult than they already were. However, he was forced to sign the bill, which he called “seriously flawed” and “unconstitutional”, because he knew that Congress would have enough votes to override a presidential veto. 

Despite Trump’s views, the political and military establishment in Washington sees Russia as a threat, as is stated in the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. The former calls Russia a “revisionist power”, while the latter proclaims that the US is in “strategic competition” with Moscow. The Kremlin is certainly opposed to American hegemony in the world and wants to find a more important place in the world order. It seeks to establish a multi-polar world contrary to one dominated by the US and its allies in Western Europe. In order to do this, it has formed an alliance of convenience with China. But unlike in the days of the First Cold War when Beijing was the junior partner of the former Soviet Union, it is now Russia that plays the subordinate role in the New Cold War. 

The American establishment justifies its position against Moscow by the military power of Russia. Despite the weakness of its economy, Russia remains a formidable military and nuclear power, just behind the United States. Given the prevailing New Cold War climate, Moscow increased its military budget by 32 per cent in 2018. According to statistics published recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia remained the second weapons-exporter in the world between 2013 and 2017, with 22 per cent of market share, behind the US (34 per cent) but well ahead of China, which came fifth (5.7 per cent). 


THE SYRIAN CONFLICT: The New Cold War between the US and Russia has left its mark on the Arab world and the Middle East, especially in the conflict in Syria. 

Scalded by the losses of its allies in Iraq, during the US-led invasion in 2003, and in Libya, with the Western military offensive in 2011, Moscow does not intend to lose or let down its ally President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. This explains the military intervention by Russia in September 2015 in favour of the Syrian regime when the latter felt it was losing control against the assaults of the armed opposition supported, armed and trained by the West and some regional powers. The Russian intervention may have prolonged the war, and it changed the balance of power in favour of Damascus, creating a new regional geopolitical reality.

As a result, and as had been the case elsewhere during the First Cold War, the conflict in Syria became a proxy war between the West and Russia with the participation of other regional actors close to either Washington or Moscow. Diplomatic engagement between Russia and the United States was reduced to communication and coordination to avoid direct military confrontation. Instead of diplomacy leading the way in bilateral relations, it is the US and Russian military that have now taken charge of coordinating the de-escalation in agreed zones in Syria. Political hostility on both sides has thus resulted in a vacuum in US-Russian diplomatic relations that has been partially filled by the armed forces, and the two countries have maintained the only dialogue platform that works to avoid confrontation. 

In one sense, again as happened during the First Cold War, the Russia-US confrontation in Syria is a way to remove rivalry from the European scene and avoid a possible confrontation in Europe that could be provoked by factors of tension including the crisis in Ukraine and the enlargement of NATO to the western borders of Russia. This is because Moscow has perceived the extension of the Atlantic Alliance as an unacceptable means for the encirclement and containment of Russia.

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