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Bill Emmott: Countries ponder how to best protect interests in era of US-China rivalry

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

During the four decades of the Cold War, from roughly 1950 until 1990, there was very little doubt about where each country of the world stood. Countries were either in "the West," as allies of the United States, or in "the Communist bloc," as allies of the Soviet Union, or else they were officially in a third, smaller and weaker non-aligned group, in which countries such as India accepted favours in terms of diplomacy or defence equipment from both of the other two camps but took on no obligations in return. Today, in the new world of U.S.-China rivalry, we are again seeing the formation of competitive camps. But what is emerging is very different to what we saw during the Cold War.

    The strategic reality of global politics is that there are now two genuine superpowers, the U.S. and China, both of which know that at some stage in the coming decades their military and economic strength will become effectively equal. Most likely, the U.S. will retain some military advantage along with broad technological superiority, but that advantage will not be of any practical use for, like in the Cold War, the ultimate expression of military advantage would be in mutually assured destruction through nuclear and other devastating weapons.

    As a consequence, only in a situation in which one of the two superpowers goes into a serious, prolonged decline thanks to internal conflict or social and economic collapse are we likely to see a substantial change in geopolitics and international order. We could speculate as to how this might happen in either the U.S. or China, but to do so is fairly pointless. We could also speculate as to whether this superpower pair might eventually be joined by a third superpower, India. But that, too, is to engage in a form of purely theoretical futurology that does not assist with the practical actions and strategic thinking that are needed today.

    Instead, what all the non-superpower countries are having to do is to work out how best to protect their interests and prosper in a world led and dominated by these two economic and political giants. That is the essential background to the emerging formation of camps. Every country has a pretty basic choice: either to align themselves closely with either the U.S. or China, or to follow India's Cold War example and position themselves as non-aligned, trying to maintain beneficial relations with both.

    It is not yet clear how this new period of camp formation will evolve. While both of the superpowers are chiefly focused on their domestic issues and circumstances, both seek to influence international affairs, actions and rule-making by means of their networks of allies and associates.

    During the Trump administration over the past four years this reality was obscured by the fact that President Donald Trump thought it a good idea to attack his European and Asian allies with oral criticisms and trade sanctions just as much as he attacked America's new superpower rival, China, or its old, declining Cold War rival, Russia. The arrival of the Biden administration, however, has moved geopolitics back to a much more logical, strategic position, in which America seeks to use its alliances to enhance its influence.

    The summit meeting in Washington, DC, between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga on April 16 was a perfect illustration. Whereas under President Trump Japan's principal goal generally had to be a form of damage-limitation, especially over North Korea, trade and military costs, under President Biden the task for Japan is one of ensuring alignment with American goals, hopefully getting benefits and some leverage in return. This is what Prime Minister Suga did in agreeing to include Taiwan in the official summit statement for the first time in 52 years, securing some moderation in the language but also support for joint technological development which will benefit Japanese companies.

    With the U.S. and Japan, the relationship is quite clear, as it also would be between the U.K. and U.S. If we were to go round the world and make a list of how many countries are in those sort of close alliances with each of the United States and China, what we would find is that the U.S. has quite an extensive list, essentially matching its Cold War security alliances in Europe and East Asia and the location of its military bases overseas, while China's list is short. The formal camps are quite unbalanced in America's (or the West's) favour, which is also why it felt so strange and self-harming for President Trump to work so hard to destroy his country's greatest global asset, its network of alliances.

    In the past, any such list for China would have included North Korea, but even that now is far from certain. These days the list can be assumed to include Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia, all neighbours. But beyond that, it is hard to be sure. Recent events suggest that China is seeking to add Iran to its camp. And it has a kind of love-hate relationship with Russia, a country which would not wish to be considered to be obligated to anyone else.

    However, what this analysis also tells us is that by comparison with the Cold War, the group of non-aligned countries is far larger than it was in 1950-90. It is larger in terms of numbers of countries but also, more importantly, it is larger in terms of the political and economic weight represented by non-aligned countries.

    In his recent book, "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China and the Struggle for Global Leadership," Clyde Prestowitz, a veteran U.S. trade official who has worked on Japan and China for 50 years, included a very interesting and provocative map in which he sought to categorise all countries in the world according to how closely they are allied with either the U.S. or China. Mr Prestowitz's definition of "allied" clearly depends greatly on trade and investment, for in his group "allied with China" he included most of sub-Saharan Africa and, more provocatively still, some European countries including Italy, Poland and Greece.

    In my view, this gets it wrong. Italy, Poland and Greece are all U.S. allies in NATO and even house U.S. troops. Just accepting Chinese investments doesn't make them members of a Chinese camp. But what this tells us is that, in a world where trade and investment flows quite freely, even after the pandemic, the tools for building relationships and dependency are now much wider than those during the Cold War. A world of two camps is forming again, but the most crucial bidding will be for support and favours from the now plentiful and important countries in the middle, the ones that do not want to choose camps. Italy knows which camp it is in. Most countries in the world now do not.

    (Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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