China and US potentially headed for Cold War: US expert Ian Bremmer

The Straits Times' US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh talks to Dr Ian Bremmer, founder and president of global political risk research and consulting firm Eurasia Group, about the United States-China rivalry.

NEW YORK - The United States is moving to roll back or limit China's reach across a broad front. But it is in technology that the strategic competition between the world's two largest economies may be sharpest.

Notwithstanding current positive noises about a deal on trade, the US and China are in a race to dominate future technology. And the term "Cold War" is increasingly being used to describe the US-China rivalry, comparing it to the struggle for global domination between the US and the former Soviet Union from 1947 to 1991.

"Increasingly the foreign policy establishment in the United States... does believe that China is a strategic competitor of the United States; that's in the national security doctrine but is also a feeling that is much broader," says Dr Ian Bremmer, author of nine books, and founder and president of global political risk research and consultancy Eurasia Group, and GZero Media.

This has to do with China's size, with its economy and what it can do being the top concern and its growing military being a concern to some extent, he told The Straits Times in an interview at his Manhattan office on Dec 6.

Said Dr Bremmer: "It has to do with its orientation, the fact that China has gotten big but is not becoming democratic; it is consolidating power under one guy and it's not becoming an open market, it's still very much a state capitalist managed economy."

"And it has to do with the fact that they've become a technology superpower very fast, and that's not integrated with the US, it's more zero sum," he said. "It's Chinese 5G, it's Chinese AI (artificial intelligence), and they're really good at it. They're rolling it out with intention and with long-term strategy."

China is not just the world's second-largest economy but is also increasingly touted as a technology superpower driving innovation. Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings, for instance, are world leaders in e-commerce, mobile payments, social media and online gaming.

But China has also been accused of using its laws to force American companies in China to transfer technology and stealing technology and intellectual property from the US.

Said Dr Bremmer: "When you put all of that together, the potential for a Cold War more broadly between the US and China, does seem to be the track that we are presently heading on."

 
 
 

A Cold War, however, is not inevitable, he said. For one thing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump have a relationship in which they can be reasonable with each other.

After their Dec 1 meeting at the Group of 20 in Argentina - ironically the day Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested - Mr Trump played up the relationship, saying they had reached a deal, though the deal was only to open a 90-day negotiation to reach a real agreement on trade and market access in China.

Mr Trump would want to maintain some momentum, said Dr Bremmer.

But it will be much harder to avoid greater, growing confrontation in technology, he added.

"Very fast, we're going to roll out these new technologies, most importantly 5G, where the United States is going to tell its allies in the west 'You're not going to use Chinese tech at all' - and they won't," he said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese will tell the countries China is investing in, under its Belt and Road Initiative, that they should use cheaper Chinese 5G.

This development will be a game changer for not just smartphones but also the Internet of Things, for machine learning, for autonomous driving, he said.

"You are fragmenting the global economy. Now that feels like a Cold War, it does," he said.