In the dying days of the Second World War as the Allied Expeditionary Force under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower closed in on Germany from the West, the Soviet Red Army under the leadership of marshals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev did so from the East and they set the stage for the next conflict — namely who would dominate Europe post the end of that war. The ideological contest that ensued between democratic liberalism and Soviet communism would consume Europe for the next four-and-a-half decades till the Berlin Wall finally fell on the 9th of November, 1989.
In those momentous days following the end of the bloodiest conflict of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, the wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, prophesied at Fulton falls in the United States on March the 5th, 1946, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of central and eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow...” This was perhaps the first detailed quantification of the Cold War.
The term “cold war” however, was first used only 13 months later on April 16, 1947, by Bernard Baruch, a multimillionaire financier and adviser to US Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Harry S. Truman at the South Carolina House of Representatives. “Let us not be deceived;” Baruch said. “We are today in the midst of a Cold War. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this.”
The term soon caught the fancy of the world after it was given a fresh lease of life by the legendary columnist Walter Lippmann in his New York Herald Tribune piece in September 1947. Soon thereafter, this proxy war was fought for 40 five years across distant theatres of the world ranging from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, countries of South and Latin America, Africa and finally Afghanistan.
The Western Allies nevertheless secured the pre-eminent battlefield of Europe by creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on April 4, 1949. At its core lay Article 5 that stated: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…” The Soviets followed it up with their own collective security architecture called the Warsaw Pact on May 14, 1955. These opposing compacts kept the “peace cold” underpinned by the nuclear doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
The Warsaw Pact was formally dissolved on July 1, 1991, and the Soviet Union disappeared into the sands of time on December 26, 1991, taking with it the erstwhile communist states of East Europe. Just as the Allies were celebrating the end of history as characterized by Francis Fukuyama earlier in the February of 1989 a new power was emerging on the horizon — China. For, nature abhors a vacuum.
In 1979, China started transforming its governing model from Mao Tse Tung’s communism to Deng Xiaoping’s totalitarian capitalism and in a span of three decades emerged as a player on the global stage with great power aspirations. However, it was only after Xi Jinping ascended to office in November 2012 that China started baring its fangs. At the centre of the strategy for global dominance lay the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) formally kicked off by President Xi on September 7, 2013, at Astana the capital of Kazakhstan. In its earlier avatar it was called the One Belt One Road (OBOR) enterprise.
However it was only seven years later after financing 2,951 projects valued at $3.87 trillion involving 2,630 companies across 138 countries encompassing the wider silk road region that China unveiled its mailed fist in April 2020 taking full advantage of the virus warfare it has unleashed through the inaccurately labeled Covid-19 pandemic. It deserved to be called the China Virus.
It created three inflection points, first on the April 18 in the South China Sea by announcing two administrative districts — the Xisha district, covering the Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank, and the Nansha district, covering the Spartly Islands, both of which are also claimed by Vietnam. It simultaneously transgressed at various places across the Line of Actual Control that separates India from China, especially in Eastern Ladakh around the same time, and moved on the political sovereignty of Hong Kong with a new security law in the May of 2020.
It is now only a matter of time that China would translate its new-found economic alliances into pro-forma military pacts across different continents subterfuged and packaged as arrangements for protecting Chinese investments overseas. In South and North Asia it already has two nuclear-armed allies, Pakistan and North Korea. Both have heavy Chinese investments. In Pakistan it is in the form of the 70 billion USD China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite window dressing in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests, is virtually sustained and nourished by the Chinese.
The Cold War with China will encompass all dimensions — economic, military, cyber, space, cultural and civilisational. It would be the defining conflict of the next three decades of the 21st century as China attempts to resurrect the grandeur of the Middle Kingdom by 2047 to avenge its century of humiliation. The global response so far has been feeble. A still-born quad — consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India — has been resurrected in Asia. However, it is still amorphous even in its latest avatar. Nations that believe that democracy, liberalism and a rules-based global order is the way people and nations should continue to live must wake up and smell the coffee. The dragon is upon us.