Forget a new Cold War, Great Power rivalry is back instead

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Talk of a new Cold War has been popular in the last few years, primarily pitched as China's rising military, political, and economic might against the dwindling power and influence of the United States. More broadly, it often gets seen as a conflict between the liberal democracy and free market values of the West, and the authoritarian, state controlled economies of the East.

While the end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower, it also led many to search for a new rival to US hegemony. From the early 2000s China has largely been seen to fit this bill.

If you were looking through the lens of economic power alone, China would fill that role well, with its GDP having grown to be the third biggest in the world. While only around 60% of the GDP of the United States, China's economic growth has, up until recently, greatly outstripped US growth.

In the political sphere, China has been assiduously cultivating its influence, using access to its immense domestic market and deep pockets as an incentive to either stifle criticism or garner support across the world. On the military front, China is also accelerating the development of weapon platforms and bases that would allow it to project its military power beyond the South China Sea, as far as Africa and deep into the Pacific.

As a result of China's rise the United States has, over the past decade, been putting more and more emphasis on its Pacific theatre of operations, which in turn has fed the narrative of a new Cold War centred on a Beijing-Washington axis.

However it's readily becoming apparent that a return to a world dominated by two duelling superpowers isn't what's happening.

The recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy sees this new paradigm in terms of China, Russia, and the US competing on the world stage. The new US strategy sees China continuing to grow its influence in Asia, Russia putting more pressure on Europe and NATO, and the United States needing to step back from the Middle East in order to contain its new strategic rivals.

I'd go further than this, and argue that we appear to be entering a new era of Great Power competition that shares more with the period 1871 - 1945 than it does with 1945 to 1991.

Where the Cold War was dominated by the duelling superpowers of the US and USSR, 1871 to 1914 was dominated by multipolar rivalry between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. Towards the end of that period they were joined by the United States and Japan. Just below that top tier of Great Powers sat Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. While right at the end of that period, China began to show signs that it was starting on the path that would eventually lead it to where it is today.

The situation we find ourselves in today mirrors that of 1871. Whereas the United Kingdom and France had been the primary world powers for nearly two centuries - with Russia lurking in the background with the potential to dwarf them both - first the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 changed that world order. In first asserting its primacy in Central Europe over Austria-Hungary, then breaking up the superpower duopoly by humbling France, Germany's rise saw the world enter an era of Great Power rivalry that would last until 1945.

Fast forward to today and we have the United States' political, military, and economic supremacy being simultaneously challenged by China's rising strength, a militarily resurgent Russia, the growing economic and political influence of India, and the European Union looking more and more like a single federal entity than a loose cooperative of different states (despite the United Kingdom's impending departure) that's set to take its own spot on the world stage.

Just below this top tier of new Great Powers, are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where it seems a question of when, rather than if, they'll become economic powerhouses in their own right. There's also the question of what role Japan will take as they wrestle with their place in this new world, trapped as they are in the middle of geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington.

For New Zealand, this new Great Power geopolitical environment offers challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge for us will be staying on side with the three largest economic Great Powers - the United States, China, and the European Union - which isn't always an easy thing to do, as has been illustrated in recent months. For example, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' pet project of a free trade agreement with Russia earned New Zealand a strong rebuke from the EU, offering a cautionary lesson on what's in store for us - pursuing one course of action could lead to other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities being shut to us.

For much of the past 20 years New Zealand has managed to navigate the China/US divide very well. Helen Clark and John Key fostered positive and productive relationships with both Beijing and Washington. The China FTA delivered by Helen Clark was a huge economic win for New Zealand, while the visit of the USS Sampson in 2016 marked a high point in US/NZ political and military relations in the nuclear-free NZ era. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful due to Donald Trump, the Trans-Pacific Partnership also seemed poised to be a big win for New Zealand too in the economic side of our relationship with the US.

To highlight just how careful New Zealand has to be in this new multipolar world, here's just some of the current free trade agreement activities on New Zealand's plate:

  • An upgrade to the China FTA,
  • Getting the finishing touches on the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which will cover Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Viet Nam,
  • Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which covers Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Korea,
  • Starting negotiations on a European Union FTA,
  • Finishing up the PACER Plus agreement,
  • Pushing the Golf Cooperation Council FTA towards conclusion, having been stalled for nine years.

Throw in the suspended Russia-Belarus Kazakhstan Customs Union FTA on top of that, and there are a heap of competing geopolitical rivalries that New Zealand somehow has to thread its way through.

The above list is only the economic side of things. We also have defence relationships with Australia, Singapore, and the United States that are generally in New Zealand's interest to keep going (as one day Donald Trump won't be the President of the United States), as well as intelligence relationships through the Five Eyes network that may well prove to be crucial in the coming years in light of growing cyber threats from rival Great Powers.

What I don't see yet on the immediate horizon is this new era of Great Power rivalry descending into widespread armed conflict like we saw during the period of 1871 to 1945. There's always the potential for it further down the track in times of economic and political turmoil, potentially brought on by competition for resources such as rare metals. For the time being though, we're likely to see things play out more like they did in the closing decades of the 19th century, with the new Great Powers jostling for influence throughout the rest of the world, but still being prepared to retreat back from the brink relatively easily.

All that being said, that prediction comes with the caveat that you can never discount the impact rogue actors might have. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led Europe to war in 1914, there's always the potential that North Korea, Iran, or some other random event - be it a cyber attack or something else - could light a powder keg that causes the new Great Powers to go from competition, to open conflict.