Can a nuclear war start with the unease felt by China?

It would be untrue that China does not want a rule-based world. China wants to sit at the table that makes the rules for the rest of the world as any rising power would want.

6 mins read
A recent report led by Rutgers scientists found that even a small exchange of nuclear weapons could kill billions of people. [Artwork Credit: NJ.com]


Rohan Mukherji of the London School of Economics and Political Science believes that he writes in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine (China’s status anxiety May 19 2023) of the possibility of China being singled out by the US as its preeminent enemy should not be wished away. He writes and I quote “When the balance of power in geopolitics begins to shift, rising and established powers often find themselves on a collision course known colloquially as the “Thucydides trap.” By this logic, great powers rig the international order for their own benefit; rising powers seek a growing share of those benefits, which great powers are unwilling to provide. This sets the stage for large-scale conflict over the international order itself”. Mukherji adds “The rise of Athens may have provoked fear in Sparta, but Athens’s refusal to back down was driven by status anxiety and the sense of being treated unfairly. It is true that great powers rig the international order in their favour. But their focus is as much on maintaining their privileged position as rule-makers in world politics as it is on securing material benefits. The purpose of the exclusive clubs that great powers have formed throughout history—such as the Concert of Europe, the League of Nations Executive Council, and the UN Security Council—has been to entrench their privileges while regulating the conduct of other states.”


It would be untrue that China does not want a rule-based world. China as mentioned earlier wants to sit at the table that makes the rules for the rest of the world as any rising power would want. More so with the disappearance of Western hegemony and the appearance of multipolarity China and the non-aligned nations would like to have their say on how the world should be guided. Harvard Luminary Stephen Walt in his article ( China Wants a ‘Rules-Based International Order,’ Too– March 31 2021) pointed out the difference between the US and Chinese conception of a ‘rules-based” world.


According to Stephen Walt, “The differences between the American and Chinese conceptions are relatively straightforward. The United States (generally) prefers a multilateral system (albeit one with special privileges for some states, especially itself) that is at least somewhat mindful of individual rights and certain core liberal values (democratic rule, individual freedom, rule of law, market-based economies, and so on). ..By contrast, China favours a more Westphalian conception of order, one where state sovereignty and noninterference are paramount and liberal notions of individual rights are downplayed if not entirely dismissed. This vision is no less “rules-based” than the United States.   China is also a vocal defender of multilateralism, even if its actual behaviour sometimes violates existing multilateral norms. Nonetheless, a world in which China’s preferences prevailed would be different from one in which the U.S. vision proved to be more influential.”


In our calculus, we seemed to have missed out on the most immediate global incendiary issue of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However much the US may wish to ignore Vladimir Putin’s repeated requests that Ukraine should not join either the Western bloc or the Russian side, an arrangement that would not affect Russian security interests, it would be unwise to forget that Russia remains a nuclear power and the world and that   Russia too, does not want the extermination of humanity.


In a long conversation with the British magazine The Economist in April 2023 Henry Kissinger felt that the world is on the path to great power confrontation. And what makes it more worrisome is that both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger. And it is a strategic danger in a world in which the decisions of each can determine the likelihood of conflict. And in such a situation it is natural to attempt to be preeminent, technologically and materially. So a situation can arise in which an issue escalates into a confrontation about the overall relationship. That is the biggest problem, at the moment. And, when there isan issue like Taiwan, in which concessions become very difficult because it involves fundamental principles, the situation becomes even more dangerous. It is believed that US government officials have a dim view of the Chinese desire for a fruitful relationship with Washington. The people loyal to XI-JINPING who crowd the different arms of the Chinese Communist Party are there not for their expertise but for their unquestionable loyalty to the leader. They do not resemble as reminisced by Henry Kissinger in one of his meetings with Mao Tse Tung. According to Kissinger’s remembrance Mao Tse Tung on one occasion called back from the cold several high-ranking military officials whose families he had destroyed and asked for their advice on a particular issue and took their advice to get out of that particular jam. This was possible Kissinger thought because of the Chinese social norms which put loyalty to the country above vengeance. Those military officials had nothing more to lose had they chosen the path of disloyalty. These days Sino-Russian entente has ‘no limits” and Vladimir Putin and Xi-Jinping are determined to prove to the developing countries that their system is better suited to deliver goods to the needy more quickly than the developed countries who accuse  China “unfairly” of debt trap though the case of Sri Lanka and refusal of Mahathir Mohammed of Chinese loan remain as examples for the world to see. As Stephen Walt perceives the issue is not the United States’ preference for a “rules-based” order and China’s alleged lack of interest in it; rather, the issue is who will determine which rules pertain where. Or as the Rand Corp.’s Michael Mazarr recently put it, “At its core, the United States and China are competing to shape the foundational global system—the essential ideas, habits, and expectations that govern international politics. It is ultimately a competition of norms, narratives, and legitimacy.”


DEUTSCHE WELLE reports (25-05-2023) on Russia, and China signing economic deals despite Western criticism. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited China where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as Premier Li Qiang. Xi-Jinping told the Russian Prime Minister  that China and Russia would continue to offer each other “firm support on issues concerning each other’s core interests and strengthen collaboration in multilateral arenas.”He added that the two countries should “push cooperation in various fields to a higher level” and “raise the level of economic, trade, and investment cooperation.”Mikhail Mishustin said that “relations between Russia and China are at an unprecedented high level.””They are characterized by mutual respect of each other’s interests, the desire to jointly respond to challenges, which is associated with increased turbulence in the international arena and the pattern of sensational pressure from the collective West.”


It is clear that China and Russia is not going to let the Western world get away with the system the bloc had put in place since the Yalta Conference which had gathered there to decide on the fate of post-war Germany.  President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin attended the conference. By March 1945, it had become clear that Stalin had no intention of keeping his promises regarding political freedom in Poland. Instead, Soviet troops helped squash any opposition to the provisional government based in Lublin, Poland. When elections were finally held in 1947, they predictably solidified Poland as one of the first Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe. President Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, was far more suspicious of Stalin when the leaders of the Allied powers met again at the Potsdam Conference in Germany to hash out the final terms for ending World War II in Europe. But with his troops occupying much of Germany and Eastern Europe, Joseph Stalin was able to effectively ratify the concessions he won at Yalta, pressing his advantage over Truman and Churchill who was replaced mid-conference by Prime Minister Clement Atlee.In March 1946, barely a year after the Yalta Conference, Churchill delivered his famous speech declaring that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Eastern Europe, signaling a definitive end to cooperation between the Soviet Union and its Western allies, and the beginning of the Cold War.


When all these things were happening China was engaged in a civil war that raged from 1945 to 1949. Then there was the Second Japanese War(1937–45), China was effectively divided into three regions—Nationalist China under the control of the government, Communist China, and the areas occupied by Japan. Each was essentially pitted against the other two, although Chinese military forces were ostensibly allied under the banner of the United Front. By the time Japan accepted the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, 1945, China had endured decades of Japanese occupation and eight years of brutal warfare. Millions had perished in combat, and many millions more had died as a result of starvation or disease. The end of World War did not mark the end of the conflict in China, however.


This brief tour of history was necessary to highlight the rise of China and the ties that bind today the Sino-Russian friendship under Vladimir Putin and Xi-Jinping and their demonstration of the superiority of an illiberal regime versus democracy preached by the wealthy nations and its attraction to the third world countries. Whether in this conflict with the US believed to be sideling Russia and making China the preeminent enemy will continue to pursue its policy contributing to China’s unease remains to be seen. It would be foolhardy to believe that just because some countries possess nuclear weapons, they have the right to exterminate humanity as it exists today

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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