The age-old nature of the “new cold war”

Chinese university students form a picture on July 1 this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. / AFP via Bangkok Post

Through Thitinan Pongsudhirak 22 November 2021

History is making a comeback. Contrary to what proponents of the “end of history” theory said a few decades ago, the 20th century ideological struggle between the “free world” camp against “socialism-communism” continues, despite the end of the cold war over three decades. since. The struggle now features the US-led Western alliance against the China-centered global network of nations with authoritarian tendencies.

With the Soviet Union losing the first ideological battle, China became the heiress and successor of the Marxist-Leninist movement. Now Beijing is sticking together with the West in the second round of this ideological pugilism. How it unfolds and concludes will depend on how China exercises its newfound power and the response of the US-led alliance.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was generally thought that history as we knew it was over. Francis Fukuyama’s work “End of History” reflected what many thought was happening, that somehow the dialectical history of ideas based on how societies and economies should be organized and governed had reached its conclusion. Indeed, it seemed at the time that Western liberal democracy and market capitalism had triumphed as the best and most self-sufficient system of government, social arrangement, and economic management the world has ever known.

He defeated political totalitarianism, central economic planning and the egalitarian social claims of the Soviet Union, because in the end the forces of market, capital, freedom and democracy were too deep and so powerful that no alternative could present itself in its way.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, it seemed like the United States had a “unipolar” moment to reshape the world order. The next two decades were first marked by the spread of free markets and democratization in much of the developing world. The European Union has paved the way for ultimate liberalization, with its integrated foreign and security policies and a common currency.

Elsewhere in the world, democratization was well advanced and market capitalism became the dominant paradigm of economic growth, development and management. These trends prevailed despite global volatility and limited conflicts in many parts of the world, including the break-up of Yugoslavia and the transformation of former Soviet satellites into autonomous republics.

Even in the early 2000s, which saw the start of the United States’ “global war on terror” against militant Islamist expansionism, liberal democracy and market capitalism continued their march.

Yet over the past decade democracy and capitalism have faced many existential challenges. Their promise of freedom and prosperity has failed in many places. Capital and wealth are increasingly accumulated in the hands of a few, while liberty and liberty have led to the division of society and to political polarization.

As more and more people around the world become more skeptical and disappointed with the disappointing performance of democracy and capitalism, made worse by rampant globalization and rapid technological advancements, many are looking for alternatives. Populism and authoritarian varieties of governance have attracted hordes of suffering who have grown resentful after being left behind in terms of income and standard of living.

Populist leaders in the democratic world have connected directly with the masses and bypassed established centers of power, such as the media and entrenched political classes, thereby pitting the masses against the elite and weakening the social fabric and political effectiveness. democratic and capitalist societies.

Enter China. Its appeal is based on the shortcomings of democracy and capitalism. Its top-down model of “authoritarian capitalism” is still Marxist-Leninist but with a fundamental twist – it claims to be democratic, despite being in a one-party state under the Communist Party of China, rather than a multi-party democracy. like in the west.

China harbors totalitarian centralized political control. However, its economic development and management are consistent with the market, or even induced by the market. China is thus frustrating the Western model of liberal democracy and market capitalism in ways that history has not seen.

The ideological battle that Marx started did not end with the fall of the Soviets, but in fact continues with the rise and resurgence of China. Barely celebrated the centenary of the CCP, communism is alive and well in China but with capitalist characteristics. The contradictions inherent in political totalitarianism and market capitalism make China strong and weak at the same time. No other modern state has been able to have its cake and eat it too by imposing centralized political control at the expense of rights and freedoms while managing a successful market economy that provides better lives and standards of living for all. his population.

The CCP-led Chinese state runs and runs a capitalist economy in the same way that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did in the 1960s-1980s. The big difference is that these three Asian countries were powerful allies of the United States which became Western democracies. China is not and never will be. He tries to avoid the debilitating flaws of the West of concentration of wealth, political polarization and societal dysfunction.

Going forward, China’s choices about how it behaves as a superpower are likely to reshape the global system to its advantage. In this respect, the new cold war is structurally old. It’s a whole new chapter in a long rivalry that began in the last century. What is at issue is the nature of the tensions between the United States and China.

The Soviet Union faced the United States directly through proxy wars in the developing world, but ultimately lost because it could not keep up with the more dynamic capitalist development centered on the West. The Soviets did not lose militarily but economically.

China, on the other hand, has not confronted the United States directly in military terms, despite its huge build-up of weapons. China’s direct and aggressive pullback is through trade protectionism and technological innovation. This confrontation between the New East and the Old West is best regulated by compromise and accommodation, thanks to which China is granted more of the role and prestige that befits its global weight and pride. If it is denied and removed, China is likely to feel resentment and unrest. The Soviets lost without a real fight. The Chinese are likely to fight a real fight because they will not accept to lose.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He received a PhD from the London School of Economics with a High Level Thesis Award in 2002. Recognized for the excellence of his opinion pieces by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.

This article first appeared in Bangkok Post.

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