The potential visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan could turn out to be one of those moments where it doesn’t matter which side is right or wrong. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev wrote to US President John F. Kennedy, telling him that if both sides continue to ‘pull on the ends of the rope’, the knot in the middle will only get tighter and the crisis more difficult to resolve. The apparently tense telephonic conversation between US President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping suggests it’s yet again a moment in which both sides are pulling at their end of the rope. The Missile Crisis ended the first intense period of the US-Soviet Cold War competition. A crisis over Taiwan could very well signal the beginning of the next bipolar Cold War. But irrespective of how the Taiwan issue is resolved, the world is already in the middle of another great power competition.
This competition will once again be a bipolar one, however difficult it is to define bipolarity with any precision. Understanding this is important because the nature of polarity does matter in setting the conditions within which the rest of the world has to live and interact. It is particularly important for New Delhi to recognise to the bipolar nature of the world because Indian decision-makers appear to think the world is multipolar. The imperatives in a multipolar world are very different from that of a bipolar world, and misidentifying this order is potentially dangerous.
Having said that, it is also necessary to understand that there will be both similarities and differences in the ongoing bipolar competition compared to the last one between the US and the Soviet Union. There are at least three important similarities, and three differences that must be kept in mind.
Like pre-1991, the current period will also be marked by intense competition between the two polar powers, this time the US and China, which will affect all others. This will lead to a divided world, much like it did during the last Cold War, with most international issues impacted by this division. Some countries will align with one side or the other, but we can also expect that those not directly in the line of fire, who are distant from either of these powers, will take advantage of the competition, as they did before. Thus, some form of non-alignment will reappear, but as double-wagoning — jumping from one bandwagon to the other while reaping benefits from both sides and playing one great power against the other, simultaneously complaining about how the Cold War was ruining them. India should be familiar with the script, considering that New Delhi mastered it during the last Cold War.
This one will also become an ideological competition, as we are already seeing. This is natural: ideology provides a superficial justification for why States make the choices they do, especially in such contests, as E.H. Carr noted decades ago. Whether it is liberal democracy or national sovereignty, these are seen as necessary moral claims even if they are a poor guide to the actual behavior of the nations. But these are also generally useless: the Soviet Union had the support of a large number of third-world countries and even their people, but that had little effect on the final outcome.
A second similarity is that we will witness increasing decoupling between the two polar powers. The East and the West had minimal economic or other linkages in the last Cold War, but the US and China are deeply embedded in the current global economic order. This doesn’t matter, as this will change, as it already slowly is, because great power competition will require it. Suspicions, misunderstandings, and just plain meanness will affect commercial relations as much as any other arena. There is no ASEAN way out of this entirely, no major middle way for others to navigate. Technological competition will add further complications. The consequence will be at least two distinct competitive international economic arenas, which may interact at the edges but will become largely independent of each other. It may not reach the level of separateness that we witnessed during the last Cold War, but that was more of an outlier in great power competition in any case.
Finally, despite this high-intensity competition, it will remain limited to a ‘Cold War’ mainly because of nuclear weapons. Some worry that China and the US may be entering a trap toward conflict and escalation but they also have the most to lose in a nuclear war, the same logic that prevented war between the US and the Soviet Union. Neither war, nor its avoidance is inevitable. There was a load of luck that also helped the US and Soviet Union during the various confrontations in the early Cold War, especially during the Missile Crisis. What it demonstrated was that, ultimately, political leaders do have a measure of control and can tamp down on escalation.
The first and the most important difference compared to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet is that the power balance is much more relatively equal than before. China is a much richer adversary to the US than the Soviet Union ever was, and it will only become militarily strong at a rapid pace. This will affect the nature of the competition, making China a tougher adversary to the US.
Second, history and geography also play a part. Europe was a relatively cleanly divided center of conflict, with only Berlin giving some early headaches. The Indo-Pacific, especially Southeast Asia, is much more open and up for grabs. It is made up of small, weak powers, whose only card is the threat that they can tilt to either side. This is a significant source of conflict, and the region lacks some of the advantages that Europe had, as the Realist scholar Aaron Friedberg noted three decades ago. Proximity should make China a bigger threat, and the US a natural ally. But proximity and the power differential also make Chinese hegemony a greater likelihood.
A third difference is that China is a rising challenger. It is thus more akin to Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, or France under Napoleon, than the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This makes Beijing a more touchy and aggressive actor than Moscow ever was. This also increases the risk of miscalculations and accidents.
This bipolar competition makes things difficult for India. Non-alignment or whatever other term is used to indicate that essential idea, it is an option for some, but not so much for India, for it is already in a security competition with one of the polar powers, China. Moreover, over the longer term, in addition to direct Chinese military pressure in both the Himalayas and in the seas, New Delhi will also have to worry about a possible Chinese hegemony over Asia. India’s misguided promiscuous foreign policy will only help this along.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)