On September 21, the United Nations (UN) marked its 75th anniversary with a high-level General Assembly. The theme for the one-day summit was ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’.
Its intention was to prevent further developments towards a new Cold War. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a virtual format was adopted, which included pre-recorded speeches from China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump.
Trump’s 2016 and upcoming election campaigns included criticising Beijing for allegedly exploiting the US, saying: “We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague on to the world – China.”
China, climate change, coronavirus
The roots of the emerging cold war between China and the US can be traced back to Trump’s first major foreign policy decision in 2017: withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord – a decision surely seen by China as sticking two fingers up at collective commitments to multilateral agreements.
Earlier this week China declared its intention to hit peak emissions within the next ten years and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, an announcement which was warmly welcomed by the European Union. Yet China’s move to help curb climate change appears to leave two major players behind, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump.
It should not be forgotten that Trump, who claimed that China ‘infected the world’, is using every possible opportunity to promote himself to his fellow Americans as worthy of a second term in office. The US President has often downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, yet the US death toll for COVID-19, stands at over 200,000 – the highest in the world.
Trump’s comments are seen by some as an attempt to shift public attention from his own handling of the crisis by drawing attention to China, as well as emphasising the US’ attempts to create a vaccine.
The US President also criticised the UN’s World Health Organization, from which the US is currently withdrawing funding, claiming that it is effectively under Chinese control. Trump also alleged that the WHO was propagating misinformation about the pandemic.
In 2018, President Trump began implementing tariffs and trade barriers against China, hoping to put an end to what he described as ‘unfair trade practices’. This marked the beginning of a trade war. US tariffs imposed on China have been labelled by the World Trade Organisation as ‘inconsistent’ with international trade rules.
China’s harsh national security law in Hong Kong and its repression of Muslim minority Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, triggered US sanctions, along with other countries. Citing human rights abuses, the US announced last week that some exports from China’s Xinjiang region will be blocked. The accusation is that ‘forced labour’ in a ‘concentration camp’ was used to make products including cotton, clothing, hair products, and computer parts.
Chinese officials claimed Xinjiang has policies that “respect and ensure people’s freedom of religious belief”. Yet, they do not deny there is a ‘training programme in Xinjiang’, which is “for the purposes of combating terrorism and religious extremism”. In addition, a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute claims to have identified over 380 ‘suspected detention facilities’.
The lead researcher, Nathan Ruser stated that “the findings of this research contradict Chinese officials” claims that all “trainees” from so-called vocational skills training centres had “graduated”. He further claims the “evidence suggests that many extrajudicial detainees are now being formally charged and locked up in higher security facilities.”
The war moves online
Recent months have intensified fears surrounding the technology firms Huawei and TikTok, focusing largely on data concerns.
The US insists that Huawei’s technology can be used by the Chinese government to spy on the data of millions across the Western world. Huawei has rejected these claims, stating the US is only motivated by economic competition. While there may be some genuine security concerns, targeting Huawei is more than just a security concern for Trump, as it appears he wants to maintain an image as a tough-with-China sort of President.
TikTok, described by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as one of many “untrusted Chinese apps”, has been a headline focus of the worsening relations between the US and China.
Similarly to Huawei, the US’ arguments against TikTok surround the theoretical possibility of the Chinese government forcing data on foreign users to be handed over, with a spokesperson for TikTok saying “we would definitely say no to any request for data.”
The data TikTok collects on its users include the location of the user, their device model, the keystroke rhythms people exhibit when typing, as well as which videos users watch and comment on. Whilst this may seem excessive, the BBC News app collects the same information.
A new Cold War?
All things considered, it indeed appears the world is entering a new Cold War, fuelled mainly by the actions of the US and China.
However, Monday’s UN summit seemed to provide different reactions from the respective US and Chinese Presidents, with Trump seeking to place the blame for the coronavirus pandemic (or in his words “China virus”) on China, whilst Xi warned of the risks of a “clash of civilisations”. President Xi added that his country has “no intention to enter a Cold War.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday said: “We are moving in a very dangerous direction.”
He added: “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture – each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities. A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
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