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A World in Disarray: A New Cold War?

The first part of the above heading is the title of a brilliant book by Richard Haass, the president of “The Council on Foreign Relations”. Our world today is increasingly defined by disorder. The rules-based international system seems to be falling apart, i.e. the rules, policies, institutions that have guided the world since World War II have largely run their course and the United States is unable or unwilling to maintain its leadership role. There is the indubitable impression that things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold. Under President Donald J. Trump, the United States is voluntarily renouncing its leadership in international affairs and there is no power or institution to uphold order in an age defined by global challenges from international terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons to climate change and cyberspace.
There is the tendency that the world is moving from a unipolar world [since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990] to a haphazard multipolar one defined by the US, Russia, China and the European Union. Russia is trying to emerge as a new great power based on its geographical space [it is the largest territorial state in the world], devastating nuclear weapons and its vast reserves of natural gas and oil. It is not only challenging Western Europe imminently, but also the US under a weak and incompetent president, who is suspiciously and incomprehensibly unwilling to take on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The unmistakable rise of China – politically, economically, militarily and culturally – is perceived as a major threat by the US, Japan and India, the latter two also rising powers.
Xi Jinping : President or Emperor?
The announcement last week that China will drop term limits on the presidency clears the way for Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely. However, some analysts point out that what appears like a demonstration of absolute power could actually be a sign of weakness, with Xi apparently unwilling to allow the rise of a potential political rival. This could also lead to future instability in the world’s most populous country [soon to be overtaken by India] as would-be successors scramble for power within a Communist Party completely dominated by Xi. At the same time his absolute authority will also leave him exposed to unconditional culpability should economic decline, foreign policy crisis or military misadventure transpire.
After the death of modern China’s founder Mao Zedong in 1976 – in the aftermath of the so-called Cultural Revolution, during which tens of thousands were killed and the country was afflicted by civil unrest – his successors moved away from one-man rule towards a consensus system where power was shared by a handful of high-ranking Party apparatchiks. This resulted in relatively straightforward transfer of power from Presidents Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping after each served two five-year terms of office. However, during Xi’s first term, it became apparent he would seek to defy this guideline. He was declared “core leader” of the Party, and state media began building up his public image with the type of ‘personality cult’ not seen since Mao. This culminated with “Xi Jinping Thought” being added to the Party constitution last year, at a key meeting in which Xi did not nominate a potential successor, fueling speculation he would remain leader after the end of his second term in 2023.
Margaret Lewis, a law professor and expert on China’s constitution at Seton Hall University, said: “Xi’s modus operandi is consolidation of power.” This could pose a problem to him in the long run, while ‘Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the conventional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system’ which Xi is removing. Another expert, Jon Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, argues Xi remaining General Secretary of the Party and head of state, “negates the institutionalization of power transitions that have served the Party well for 35 years, enabling it to avoid damaging schisms that have plagued other Communist regimes.” But “Xi is banking on being able to contain and neutralize his opponents” said Sullivan. However, this “will necessitate greater levels of repression, both in society and within the Part-state.” That repression was on show in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, when a spate of discussion and criticism on Chinese social media was swiftly censored and controlled. Completely censored were references to ‘Yuan Shikai’, the former President of the Republic of China who dissolved a democratically-elected parliament in 1913 and appointed himself emperor, which, however, was very short-lived.
Nowhere has Xi’s new self-assertive leadership been more obvious than in China’s foreign and military policy. He has pushed the reform and modernization of the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ (PLA) and has direct control over it. In the South China Sea, Beijing has continued the militarization of islands, reefs and islets in defiance of a ruling of the International Court of Arbitration. It has also sought to increase its military and economic influence in South Asia, especially Pakistan and the Maldives. Last year, the PLA and Indian troops engaged in a months-long stand-off over the disputed (Bhutanese) territory of Doklam near the Siliguri Corridor or the “Chicken’s Neck”, the extremely strategic area between [clockwise] Tibet,
Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sikkim. Under Xi, China is also expected to take a much tougher line on autonomous Taiwan.
Russia’s Nuclear Overkill
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed last week of new nuclear weaponry that would render NATO defences “completely useless” delivering a warning to the world about Russia’s resurgent military prowess. In his annual address to the Russian parliament, he boasted that Russia had developed a new nuclear-capable cruise missile with “unlimited” range that is capable of eluding air-defence systems. He also professed that Russia had refined an “invincible” missile that can deliver a warhead at hypersonic speed. Russia had also developed other new weaponry, including unmanned underwater vehicles capable of moving at great speeds. Putin utilized the occasion to proclaim his country’s advances in military technology and to highlight his toughness as a leader. At the same time, Putin was also responding to the Trump administration’s recent “Nuclear Posture Review”, which calls for enhancing the flexibility of the US nuclear deterrent.
Putin’s saber-rattling speech was reminiscent of the Cold War and no one knows how much is bluster. However US and Russian forces operate in close proximity at several crisis zones like Syria and across Eastern Europe and there is an ever increasing possibility for things to go wrong. As retired US Navy admiral and former commander of NATO forces James Stavridis points: “The risk for miscalculation between US and Russian forces is higher than at any time since the height of the Cold War . . . Operationally, the stakes are extraordinarily high anytime two massive armed, nuclear-capable states have combat forces in the same battle space.”
United States: Chaos at Home, Ruderless Abroad
In the meantime, the dire consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency – in the domestic and international arena – are now being felt. Former CIA chief John Brennan said last Friday that the president was “ill prepared” to take on the duties of commander-in-chief, particularly with regard to the growing military aggression from Russia and North Korea. Furthermore, “it is no secret to anybody that Donald Trump was very ill prepared and inexperienced in terms of dealing with matters that a head of state/head of government needs to deal with, and I think this is now coming to roost.” Not only did Trump completely lack a sense of priorities, “if we have somebody in the Oval Office who is unstable, inept, inexperienced, and also unethical – we really have rough waters ahead.”
Trump announced on March 1, 2018 that the US would impose 25 percent tariffs on imported steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum – the most significant import restrictions since 1971 under President Nixon. US business leaders now worry that Trump “by imposing stiff and sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum, will set off a trade war with other countries. The global tit-for-tat could hurt American exporters and raise costs for manufacturers that rely on a vast supply chain around the world” (New York Times). As a chain reaction, it would definitely axe economic growth. Edward Alden, writing for the “Council on Foreign Relations” said with insight: “It was once said that Britain lost its empire in a fit of absent-mindedness; the United States, it now appears, could lose its own in a fit of Donald Trump’s impulsiveness.”

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