Today’s world is a lot like the first ten years of the Cold War, which were challenging because of violent regional conflicts. António Guterres said last month that “geopolitical differences are undermining all forms of international cooperation. “. This cannot continue, he said. The Cold War began in 1950 when the Soviet Union launched a war against the West on the Korean peninsula. The United States hurried to devise a plan to stop communist influence from spreading past the “Iron Curtain”, which stretched 5,000 kilometres across Eurasia.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the US built up an aerial empire that stretched Soviet defences thin along a 12,000-mile frontier. Only four occasions over the 45-year Cold War would pose a threat of nuclear war, all of which were swiftly resolved. Before the fall of Kabul, geopolitical tensions had forced the US military to send any air support for its ground forces there on a 2,000-mile round-trip flight from the Persian Gulf. Europe’s energy imports have gone through a long-term, fundamental change that has important geopolitical effects. The US and China are building up their navies rapidly as tensions escalate over Taiwan.
The cost of an American intervention to protect Taiwan could cost the US at least 79% of its troops, a think tank has estimated. Beijing might be able to bring some of the U.S.’s allies into its sphere of influence. China is challenging Washington’s former dominance in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific by building up its navy and improving its economy. It has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a key way for Beijing to reach its Eurasian goals. This is a response to the American alliance network.
In July 2021, China carried off the first-ever “fractional orbital launch” of a hypersonic missile. The only thing that would be certain in a future fight between the US and China over Taiwan would be unimaginable death and damage to the world economy. Temperatures in 15 provinces of India this summer ranged from 109° to 115° Fahrenheit on average. Parts of China’s Yangtze River turned into mudflats and hydropower outages forced the closure of enterprises. China and the U.S. pledged to reduce their reliance on coal four months before the Ukraine War broke out. Even if Beijing and Washington were able to avoid a war over Taiwan, the warming of their diplomatic relations hurts the already weak global effort to fight climate change.
If a new Cold War is starting, it will be very different from the last few global battles, with frequent summits between beaming leaders and arms deals meant to defuse nuclear concerns. Instead, today’s world is a lot like the first ten years of the Cold War, which were challenging because of violent regional conflicts, warnings of nuclear attacks, and the constant risk of a superpower clash.
Changes from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific, on the other side of Eurasia, could be the most dramatic and dangerous. At the same time, world leaders debate the Ukraine crisis at the United Nations, and news flashes from that conflict zone become a part of our everyday life. Beijing and Washington are forging opposing alliances in the region as they vie for control of a vast region inhabited by more than half of the world’s population, with a potential conflict centred on the island of Taiwan.
Even though another conflict seems dangerous, the problems there aren’t much more than a distraction from a much bigger problem that humanity faces. Since so many people are worried about the crisis in Ukraine and the possibility of another one in Taiwan, world leaders tend to ignore the growing threat of climate change. The fact that we have recently been offered unsettling glimpses of what is to come doesn’t seem to matter much. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, told world leaders at the General Assembly last month that “geopolitical differences are undermining all forms of international cooperation.” “This cannot continue.” Our earth is burning, trust is eroding, and inequality is exploding.
Think of geopolitical conflict and climate change as two storm fronts: one is a fast-moving thunderstorm, and the other is a slower-moving tropical depression. When these two storm fronts meet, they may cause a cataclysm with destructive power that has never been seen before.
The Old Cold War’s geopolitics
Even though the two opposing power blocs in this new Cold War in Eurasia are similar to those in the 1950s, small differences make the current balance of powerless stable and more likely to lead to armed conflict.
Mao Zedong, the leader of the communists in China, and Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, worked together in an uneasy way. Because these two communist governments were in charge of a big part of the vast landmass of Eurasia, the Cold War quickly grew from a local fight to a global one.
Washington hurried to devise a plan to stop communist influence from spreading past the “Iron Curtain,” which stretched 5,000 kilometres across Eurasia in 1950 when that new communist alliance launched a meat-grinder war against the West on the Korean peninsula. The United States was at risk of losing “the struggle of existence,” according to a top-secret study written by the National Security Council (NSC) in January 1951. If a real war broke out, the 175 divisions of the Soviet Union could easily beat the ten divisions of the US army that were already in Europe. The NSC said that Washington should rely more on “strategic air power” to get its growing “atomic stockpile” to where it needs to be. It also said that Washington should show its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by putting itself in a “position of strength” in the Far East. In a world war with the Soviets, this would give Washington a strong strategic base from which to attack Russia.
American diplomats quickly put this plan into action by signing agreements and treaties for the mutual defence to surround Eurasia with steel rings, especially in the form of different air bases. After turning the newly formed NATO into a military-only alliance, Washington immediately signed bilateral defence agreements with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia. These countries are all on the edge of Asia. The Western coalition then made METO (the Middle East Treaty Organization) and SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) as mutual defense pacts to protect that continent’s long southern border. The United States and Canada made NORAD (North American Aerospace Command) so that they could surround Eurasia from every direction. They did this by sending a large fleet of missiles, bombers, and early-warning radar to the Arctic to stop any more Soviet attacks from coming across it.
Within a decade, the US had built an aerial empire that absorbed the sovereignty of dozens of allies and gave the US Air Force jet fighters access to those countries’ airspace as if it were their own. Hundreds of US air bases would anchor this imperium of the clouds to the ground, housing 580 enormous B-52 bombers, 4,500 jet fighters, and an arsenal of missiles that, by 1960, permitted the Air Force to claim nearly half of the growing Pentagon budget.
Even though it was based on the fear of nuclear war, this military architecture gave the rivalry between the superpowers at the time a surprising amount of stability. It first lowers the chance that a single, concentrated point of conflict could grow into an atomic war by stretching Soviet defences thin along a 12,000-mile frontier. Only four occasions over the 45-year Cold War would pose a threat of nuclear war, all of which were swiftly resolved: the Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958, the Berlin Crisis in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the Able Archer NATO drill in 1983. When the Soviet Union tried to get out of its political isolation, Washington was able to do the most damage for the least amount of money because the Soviets were effectively contained. This strategy worked at first in Cuba and Angola, but it was a disaster in Afghanistan, which led to the end of the Soviet Union.
China and the US are at odds
But almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Washington’s geopolitical encirclement of Eurasia has become less secure, especially along the southern edge of the continent. Among other things, it has lost a lot of the power it had in the Middle East during the Cold War. Friends that used to be under Washington’s control, like Turkey (which joined an “axis of good” with Russia and Iran), Egypt (which bought $2 billion worth of jet fighters from Russia), and even Saudi Arabia, have become less dependent on the U.S. (by doing big oil deals with Moscow). Even though the US has been there for more than ten years and spent more than a trillion dollars, Iraq is falling apart and becoming a failed state.
However, the most considerable vacuum was created by Washington’s disorganised exit from its futile 20-year war in Afghanistan, which detractors promptly dubbed “Biden’s Afghan Blunder.” But that choice was more calculated than it seemed. Even before Kabul fell, geopolitical tensions had forced the US military to send any air support for its ground forces there on a 2,000-mile round-trip flight from the Persian Gulf. This was because China was already consolidating its power in Central Asia through multibillion-dollar development deals with countries like Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Now, when the US military is having a lot of trouble in both the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine, that once-controversial retreat looks almost like a good move.
President Biden’s calculated response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the western end of Eurasia has not only healed the harm done to NATO by Donald Trump’s attacks on the organisation. Still, it has led to a level of cooperation across the Atlantic not seen since the worst days of the Cold War. Along with the joint effort to equip and train the Ukrainian military, Europe’s energy imports have gone through a long-term, fundamental change that has important geopolitical effects. The United States helped in the gap left by Vladimir Putin’s invasion by sending 60 percent of its surging natural gas exports to Europe when the European Union (EU) responded by forbidding imports of Russian coal and oil and cutting off vital natural gas from its pipelines.
The EU is spending a lot of money on a hastily put-together plan to build expensive terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, which are growing quickly. The EU is working quickly to build twice as many LNG terminals as it does now. This is to replace the 118 million tons of natural gas that was imported from Russia every year before the war. The EU is also negotiating long-term contracts with producers in the U.S., Australia, and Qatar to build expensive liquefaction plants, like the $25 billion Driftwood project being built in Louisiana. Amazingly quickly, these massive investments are ensuring that Europe’s economic ties to Russia will never again be as strong at either end of the oil supply chain.
On the other hand, a deadly standoff with China over Taiwan at the eastern end of Eurasia is making it hard for Washington to rebuild its Cold War strategic base in the Pacific. In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the “historical goal of the total reunification of the motherland must be reached.” In May, President Biden said that he wanted to “engage militarily to defend Taiwan.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed during her contentious visit to the island in August that “America’s determination to safeguard democracy here in Taiwan…remains unbreakable.” As Chinese jets bomb the island’s airspace and American warships sail defiantly through the Taiwan Strait, both countries are building up their navy quickly. The US Navy wants to have at least 321 human-crewed ships, whereas China, which has the highest capacity for shipbuilding in the world, wants to have 425 boats in its fighting force by 2030.
China has been aggressively extending its economic influence throughout Asia while constructing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the largest trading organisation in the world. Beijing might be able to bring some of the U.S.’s allies into its sphere of influence over time. Other Asian allies like Australia and the Philippines have adopted a more ambiguous stance. At the same time, Japan continues to see the US commitment to Taiwan as a component of its defence and South Korea has shed its customary ambiguity to issue a joint statement about “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
The cost of American involvement might be prohibitive should China attempt to invade Taiwan, which, according to that island’s foreign minister, is likely to happen next year. According to a set of war game scenarios put together by a Washington think tank last August, an intervention to protect Taiwan could cost the US Navy at least 79% of its troops. This is equal to two aircraft carriers, dozens of surface ships, and hundreds of aircraft.
Along the southern tier of Eurasia, it is abundantly clear that some of Washington’s partners are becoming increasingly unreliable. Trump’s tweet in 2017 denouncing Islamabad’s “lies and deceit” marked the end of Washington’s 50-year partnership with Pakistan as part of its ongoing geopolitical realignment. Then, following Tokyo’s example, Washington established the “Quad,” a naval pact with three other Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, and Japan.
India is unquestionably the cornerstone of this loose alliance because of its strategic location and expanding fleet of 150 vessels, including nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier currently under construction. However, New Delhi’s impromptu coalition with other similar democracies is proving, at best equivocal. It has played host to most of the Quad’s yearly joint naval exercises intended to check China in the Indian Ocean. But it has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a key way for Beijing to reach its Eurasian goals. During the meeting of that group in Uzbekistan last month, Narendra Modi criticized Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine.
China is challenging Washington’s former dominance in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. It is doing this by building up its navy and working to improve the economy. This is a response to the American alliance network. With its trillion-dollar infrastructure expenditures, Beijing is building a steel network of trains, roads, and pipelines across Eurasia. Beijing has also made or acquired 40 commercial ports that now encircle the shores of Africa and Europe.
Beijing’s busy dockyards are always building new warships and nuclear submarines, even though China already has the largest (if not the most powerful) fleet in the world. It most recently constructed its first significant aircraft carrier. Additionally, it has more than 500 orbital satellites, making it the second-largest space network, and has made progress in quantum cryptography by sending uncrackable “entangled photon” signals more than 1,200 kilometres.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency says that China has made sophisticated cyber and anti-satellite tactics to “fight a U.S. intervention during a regional military confrontation.” This shows how far ahead of the curve China is in technology. And in July 2021, it carried off the first-ever “fractional orbital launch” of a hypersonic missile, which circled the earth at 3,800 miles per hour before aiming for a target within 24 miles. This accuracy was sufficient for the nuclear payload the missile could one day carry. In other words, the only thing that would be certain in a future fight between the US and China over Taiwan would be unimaginable death and damage to the world economy that would make the fighting in Ukraine look like a minor border dispute.
Amazingly, though, it is not the worst development for Asia or the rest of the world. The threat posed by the rapidly worsening climate problem is much more significant. When it was released in February last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to the most recent assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “a harsh indictment of failed climate leadership”.
When global warming reaches 1.5° Celsius in just a few years, storms and droughts will wreak much more havoc on farmlands than they already have, while reefs protecting the coasts will fall by up to 90%, and the population at risk of coastal floods will rise by at least 20%. The UN warned that the changes are happening so quickly that nature and people might not be able to keep up, which could lead to a planet that is mostly uninhabitable in the future.
The weather catastrophes that broke out in Asia in the six months that followed the publication of that ominous report would give those gloomy words bad weight. In Pakistan, the annual monsoon rains caused huge floods that covered an unheard-of one-third of the country. These floods forced 33 million people to leave their homes and killed 1,700. Warmer seas exacerbated the floods. Even after another six months, those storms that are destroying its agricultural heartland are not likely to completely subside.
Six million people in neighboring Afghanistan are on the verge of starvation because of a long drought. Wildfires are also burning in the country’s eastern provinces. In a similar vein, temperatures in 15 provinces of India this summer ranged from 109° to 115° Fahrenheit on average, and in certain cities, they did so for a record-breaking 27 days.
Similar startling weather extremes occurred last summer in China, where the greatest drought on record turned parts of the great Yangtze River into mudflats, hydropower outages forced the closure of enterprises, and temperatures broke records. However, in other areas of the nation, severe flooding sparked deadly landslides and caused rivers to reverse course. The north China plain, which is currently home to 400 million people, is predicted to face deadly heat waves by 2050 and perhaps experience extreme weather conditions by the end of the century, rendering it uninhabitable.
Global leaders are now preoccupied with armed conflicts at either end of Eurasia, thus ending once-promising international cooperation on climate change. China “suspended” all climate negotiations with the United States only recently, despite the fact that, as of 2020, those two countries accounted for 44% of global carbon emissions.
The two nations released a historic statement at the UN’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference last November, just four months before the Ukraine War broke out. In it, they acknowledged the “urgency of the climate crisis” and pledged to take “accelerated action in the critical decade of the 2020s…to avoid catastrophic impacts.” China and the United States both pledged to “scale down” (but not “phase out”) their reliance on coal beginning in 2025 in order to uphold their commitments, which isn’t exactly a perfect solution to the situation. Now that there is zero climate communication, the situation is rather bleak.
Unsurprisingly, these political and environmental storms coming together pose a terrifying threat to the world’s survival. This gives the idea of a cold war turning into a hot war new meaning. Even if Beijing and Washington were able to avoid a war over Taiwan, the warming of their diplomatic relations hurts the already weak global effort to fight climate change. The globe is now faced with situations that can only be described as “lose-lose”—or worse—instead of the “win-win” that served as the foundation for successful US-China relations for nearly 30 years.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network