US-China tensions escalated last week over the coronavirus pandemic, fuelling fears of a new Cold War. Yet, that historical analogy is far from perfect to describe the growing tensions between the two superpowers.
Just two of the key differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, and today’s relationship between Washington and Beijing, is the extent of people-to-people interaction, and trade. In the late 1980s, the United States was importing around $200 million (Dh734 million)worth of goods from the Soviet Union, while US imports from China in 2018 were more than $500 billion.
Yet, it is nonetheless the case that there are elements of US-China competition reminiscent of the Cold War, including the ratcheting up of military competition. Today, a string of security issues cloud the bilateral agenda, including the South China Sea.
A second element that recalls the US-Soviet relationship is the hardening of ideological or system competition. China is well aware here that one of the key reasons that Washington bested Moscow in the Cold War was its strategy of international containment and cultural vigour with successive US administrations generally using soft power resources skilfully to encourage other countries into a system of alliances, including Nato.
The Trump team would do well to relearn the ‘lessons’ of the past, including how Washington used soft power resources so skilfully during the Cold War to press its case against the Soviet Union.
Today, Beijing and Washington are increasingly in a similar battle for ‘hearts and minds’. As things stand today, people around the world tend to have a more favourable view of the United States than China, according to the most recent (2019) Pew Research survey of 33 nations.
The United States is significantly more positively perceived than China in a clear majority (21) of these countries — mainly in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. There are particularly stark gaps in Japan, where people are 54 percentage points more likely to have a positive view of Washington than Beijing (68 per cent versus 14 per cent), while people in South Korea, the Philippines and India are also at least 37 points more likely to see the United States than China favourably. Large differentials also appear in many Central and Eastern European nations, such as Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.
Yet, other countries have more positive views of Beijing than Washington, including Mexico. For example, 71 per cent of Russians see China favourably, while only 29 per cent have a positive opinion of the United States. Many people in the Middle East and Africa are also more partial to Beijing than the United States, including in Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey and Nigeria.
The soft power battle
Yet, while Washington is therefore in pole position in this soft power battle, Beijing is punching back hard. Take the example of Asia-Pacific where Trump last year unveiled a revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China’s growing strength.
Yet, welcome as the administration’s emerging plan for many US regional allies, critics claim that the strategy will have less overall impact than the Obama team’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which Trump abruptly pulled out of on the first day of his presidency. And the added pressure on the White House here is China’s monumental ambition in comparison as illustrated by the $1 trillion Belt and Road scheme, plus its alternative vision to TPP of a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
History also points to the apparent under ambition of current US strategy. Since 1945, US administrations of both Republican and Democratic stripes helped create and nurture key global and regional bodies and institutions that exist to this day from the UN, to the IMF and World Bank.
Inspired by this post-war success, both the administrations of George H.W. Bush and especially Bill Clinton encouraged creation of a range of bodies including APEC. The Obama team’s TPP was thus only the latest example of a global institutional-building project that began in the post-Second World War to embed US influence.
It is in this context that the US plan for Asia-Pacific must be judged, and convince US allies that the Trump team is wholly committed — politically, economically and security-wise — to the region. Here there are some troubling signs for Washington with confidence in Trump, specifically, lagging according to Pew. His ratings are significantly lower than the most recent ones of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in a range of Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia (by -49 percentage points), Japan (-42), South Korea (-42), Indonesia (-34) and the Philippines (-17).
And this comes at the same time as there have been significant declines since 2015 in regional views of US international pre-eminence vis-a-vis China. Take the example of which country is perceived as the world’s leading economic power. Significantly less people in the Philippines (-32 percentage points), Indonesia (-26) and India (-8) believe this is true of the United States today than five years ago.
Taken together, this underlines that, while Washington currently has advantage in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ across the region, and indeed, much of the world, its lead is not necessarily unassailable. Given some reversals in the last half decade, the Trump team would do well to relearn the ‘lessons’ of the past, including how Washington used soft power resources so skilfully during the Cold War to press its case against the Soviet Union.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.