China, the United States, and coronavirus: can the “cold war” get hot?

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When one threatens to cut off all diplomatic relations, the other responds by saying that it is on the brink of the “cold war”. Between the United States and China, the threats of rupture intensified against a backdrop of trade war, and, above all, of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For several months already, the two countries have continued to launch spikes on their respective management of the health crisis. Between the war of words, the disputes over the origin of the new coronavirus, and the charges of concealment, Beijing and Washington have had something to strengthen their already sensitive animosity since the arrival of Trump to the American presidency.

On Sunday, the Chinese foreign minister went further, claiming to be in the breach of the “cold war” in the United States. An unprecedented statement, according to Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

“This is probably a form of warning, China knows that most countries in the world would not be ready to follow the United States in a frontal shock with Beijing. But it is an expression that is rarely used by Chinese leaders, including because they know that the Cold War was lost by the Soviet Union, “explains a geopolitics specialist.

The global economy turned upside down

This “new cold war” takes place in a context very different from the first, adds Dominique Moïsi, special advisor to the Montaigne Institute, and former deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri). “The USSR-United States cold war was only competitive on the military level, not at all on the economic level”, he recalls. “We were in a deeply divided world, not globalized. America did not need the USSR any more than the world. The USSR reigned a little by its ideas and by its weapons but not by its trade. This is not the case for China. “

This “new cold war”, as he calls it, is being fought on several fronts. To that of the economy are added those of technology, commerce, finance, and, as an accelerator, the Covid-19. “When there is a deterioration in fairly spectacular US-Chinese relations, the stock markets go down, and say that not only is the economy going badly, but that in addition our hopes for a recovery in the third quarter are not only suspended on a possible second wave. They are also affected by an escalation, first verbal, then real, between the United States and China, ”explains Dominique Moïsi.

For the two specialists, there are many risks that the cold war could become hot. “We have long feared a military clash between the two countries in Asia-Pacific, which, with the temperament of Donald Trump could easily lead to an escalation,” warns Bruno Tertrais.

Which camp for France?

What worries France, “very present” in the region “especially because of its overseas departments and territories”, and which “values ​​freedom of navigation on the high seas and does not hesitate to patrol nearby of Chinese territory – or claimed as such by Beijing – to show it, “analyzes the specialist.

These challenges do not necessarily mean that France, in the event of a proven cold war, would be on the American side. “Donald Trump did not push the Europeans to stay in the transatlantic camp, on the contrary. He openly despises them, denounces the Union, our weakness, our hypocrisy and our lack of will, ”says Dominique Moïsi.

All these Chinese and American spikes have one objective: to inflate the national organs hit during the crisis, said the former professor at Harvard. “The difference is that in six months Trump may no longer be president of the United States. Xi Jinping’s nationalist and aggressive China will always be there. […] The question is what America will be like beyond Trump, for China, and for the world, “he said. Even without clashes on the ground, this “war” could therefore leave indelible marks.


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