England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

A new world (dis)order: The US-China cold war

By Danny Byrne, Socialist Alternative London

The 2020s has recently been dubbed an ‘age of geopolitics’ by capitalist commentators. In fact, socialists were way ahead of them in identifying inter-imperialist conflict (which is what “geopolitics” really means) as a crucial part of the crisis-ridden landscape in capitalism’s new Age of Disorder.

From the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, to the ongoing bloody war in Ukraine, and woven like a thread through all of the manifold crises facing the system from the climate to the economy, the end of ‘globalisation’ has been laid bare. Instead of global cooperation to address the system’s problems, inexorable conflict between competing blocs of imperialists makes them constantly worse. We are now in an age of disunity and disorder characterised by ‘deglobalisation’ and ‘decoupling’.

In September 2023, these trends were on full display in several important global summits. The United Nations met in New York and the G20 in India and agreed… well, pretty much nothing, in the face of multiple global catastrophes. The opening speech of UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, to the General Assembly warned that the world was “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations; one that threatens a single, open internet; with diverging strategies on technology and artificial intelligence; and potentially clashing security frameworks”.

The driving force behind this geopolitical turmoil is the New Cold War between rival US and Chinese-led imperialist blocs, who are engaged in an epic battle for global supremacy. Over recent years, simmering disputes have erupted into open conflict on many fronts. The US and China are engaged in economic and trade warfare, each seeking to limit the other’s ability to advance in key fields, especially advanced technologies. The most high-stakes areas in this trade war have important military dimensions, focusing on key raw materials and technological components in the modern weaponry at the heart of a new global arms race.

Indeed, this Cold War already has ‘hotspots’, points where working-class people are paying a bloody price for tycoons’ and oligarchs’ ambitions for world domination. This is most clearly the case in Ukraine, where Russia’s invading army and the NATO-backed Ukrainian military are engaged in a brutal ‘meat grinder’ war of attrition which has already claimed tens of thousands of working-class lives. A potentially even more dangerous flashpoint exists in relation to Taiwan, where an escalated conflict would bring the US and China perilously close to direct military conflict.

China – A rising challenger?

The beginning of the US/China conflict predates the 2020s. It is rooted in China’s rise as an economic and geopolitical challenger the US, which was the world’s only superpower in the period following the collapse of Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Already under Barack Obama, US imperialism dramatically announced a “pivot to Asia” (ie a pivot to challenge China). The process was then turbo-charged under the Trump presidency, which began the trade war, showing that this conflict is a deep-seated one and not a result of the whims of this or that politician. Joe Biden has not wavered one step from Trump’s Cold War agenda, but has himself escalated it significantly.

China has of course responded in turn, with multiple rounds of import and export controls targeting US firms and interests. The capitalist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has also responded to growing US pressure by extending its economic, diplomatic and geopolitical influence. In a dramatic turnaround which puts declining US influence under the spotlight, China is now the number one trading partner of South America, and the African continent’s biggest bilateral lender. It has also signed up more than 150 countries to its flagship (but now flagging) ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ global infrastructure development, which is reported to be worth up to $1 trillion in investments and loans.

In the geopolitical sphere, China and Russia have significantly strengthened their ties since the Cold War gathered pace, signing a much-vaunted “no limits” partnership in the months prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While China has taken care to avoid direct involvement in the war – instead attempting to boost its diplomatic weight by posing unconvincingly as ‘peacemaker’ – its support for Russia is clear. Russia’s isolation in the aftermath of the invasion has also deepened its dependence on Chinese imperialism, which has massively increased trade with Russia since the war started.

Rival blocs

The war in Ukraine, which was ultimately caused by the Cold War rivalries, has in turn turbocharged the Cold War itself. It has accelerated the division of the world into competing blocs, dominated by the Cold War’s main protagonists. In a further indication of this, September saw a high-profile visit by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to Russia, with plans for deeper military and technology cooperation eagerly pursued by both sides. This represents a rupture of the previous anti-North Korea consensus among major imperialist powers (China and Russia had both previously signed up to sanctions against the regime’s nuclear programme). The days immediately following the Putin-Kim summit saw other important diplomatic trips, by the Chinese defence minister to Russia, and by the Russian defence minister to another ‘pariah-state’ being drawn more solidly into the Chinese-led anti-US bloc.

Another important recent summit was that of the ‘BRICS’ alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which agreed to an important expansion, admitting six new member states (Including Iran and Saudi Arabia), with dozens more queuing up for membership. While this alliance is important, signifying the continuing influence of Chinese imperialism in the wider Global South, it also has significant limitations. While China and Russia favour its development as a clear counterweight to the US-led camp, other BRICs members, notably India, have avoided taking a clear side in the Cold War, and have their own conflicts of interest with Chinese imperialism.

On the other side, we have seen the US’s leadership of the West significantly strengthened. Tensions between European powers, and between European powers and the US, which were reflected in differences over how to approach the Russian ‘threat’, have been largely swept aside. Western governments (with the support of Japan, Australia, etc) have all lined up behind an agenda of militarism and escalation.

The international working class has no interest in disputes between rival gangs of thieves and murderers over world domination. In Britain, where the ruling elite is part of the ‘hawkish’ core of the US-led Cold War bloc, socialists must be firm in our opposition to ‘our’ side’s imperialist interests. Their narrative of the Cold War as a valiant struggle between ‘freedom and autocracy’ is a pack of lies, and a fig leaf for their ugly agenda, of which we have bitter experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the planet. On the other hand, any illusions that the brutal anti-working class tyrants and warmongers of Chinese or Russian imperialism are somehow ‘progressive’ counterweights to the West must also be dispelled.

Our answer to inter-imperialist conflict is international working class organisation and struggle for workers’ unity, peace and socialism. 



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