Is the Third World War around the corner in Asia?
In the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, the world may be headed toward another major confrontation. The actions of the United States in moving closer to India, Japan and Australia (the ‘QUAD’), as well as moving to supply nuclear attack submarines to Australia as part of the ‘AUKUS’ alliance with the UK suggest a robust preparation to confront China. Certainly Beijing is widely blamed for, at the very least, not doing enough to contain the pandemic before it began, and suspicions abound on whether it deliberately released the virus, possibly from a lab in Wuhan for its own geopolitical/economic gains. This is compounded by increasingly aggressive behaviour by China against Taiwan as well as deadly border clashes with India. It is clear that the strategy of engagement of Beijing by the West is over.
Preparations for confrontation with China can be seen in other areas as well. For the past 20 years, the US has been preoccupied by a longstanding war against terrorists and insurgents in the Mid-East and Afghanistan. President Biden left Afghanistan in a hurry but has reiterated his commitment to Asia more broadly, sending Carrier Strike Groups to East Asia to reassure nervous allies that Washington remains engaged in the Indo-Pacific; it simply does not wish to be tied down fighting extremists and insurgents. There has been ample criticism of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan as well as the way the withdrawal was carried out. The latter criticism may be more valid than the former. By staying in Afghanistan, the US was vulnerable to the blackmail of Afghanistan’s meddling neighbour and nefarious ‘ally’ Pakistan, which is a Taliban supporter and Chinese ally. Leaving Afghanistan freed America from Chinese blackmail via Pakistan, and enabled greater concentration of military resources from infantry to intelligence gathering assets to balancing China. It also enables the US to sanction Pakistan, as Washington is no longer dependent on Pakistani supply lines. That would hurt China as well; Beijing relies on Pakistan to tie down the resources of India, the other rising Asian superpower. Certainly Biden could have withdrawn more competently, possibly leaving a brigade or two in place until all vulnerable civilians such as interpreters/translators were evacuated but otherwise he has freed up considerable resources for renewed superpower competition with China.
The stage is therefore set for a new Cold War, with the West, Japan and India opposed to China. Given the propensity of Beijing to start border fights, this Cold War has much more potential than the last one to go ‘hot’ i.e. turn into an actual armed conflict. Nearly all of the pieces for a new great war are set on the global chessboard. China, Pakistan and North Korea on one side and the liberal democracies on the other. The main variable that is yet to be decided is the position of Russia. Moscow remains hostile to the West – a feeling that is mutual, yet its actions suggest that it does not totally trust China. Putin has sold India Russia’s most advanced cruise missiles and air defence systems, almost certainly to counter Beijing, yet the Russian military is simultaneously growing closer to China in an effort to counter the power of the West. Whether Russia chooses to fully side with China or not will likely help to decide the duration, lethality and outcome of the next World War, should one happen.