Understanding the new geopolitical paradigm
The parameters and implications of deepening US-China tensions
- A reshaping global geopolitical landscape. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s positioned the United States (US) as the de facto leader of a new unipolar order. Over nearly three decades, the US, aided by its strategic partners, has held a virtual monopoly over economic, military, technological and geographical capabilities, as well as defined the parameters of the global multilateral order. Over the same period, however, China has emerged as a major power and Russia has undergone a resurgence, events which have forced a shift in the balance of power from a unipolar to a multipolar order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hastened this realignment and deepened the tensions that underpin it. Of course, other emerging markets, such as India, have similarly elevated their global economic and geopolitical standing in recent decades – further bolstering the role and significance of the Global South. But China’s multifaceted rise has been particularly seismic, eliciting increased competition with the US as both seek to shape the emerging global order. In this note, which builds on opening report in this series (see here), we seek to unpack the parameters of this deepening geopolitical rivalry, questioning whether its features are consistent with a so-called ‘new Cold War’, and assessing the implications of the same for Africa. Our focus in this note is largely on the US’s perspective on these ongoing shifts – in our next report in this series we will more closely emphasise the nuance of China’s view, and its implications for Africa.
- A new Cold War? The rivalry between China and the US has triggered an animated debate about whether the world has moved into a ‘new Cold War’. While US authorities have pushed back against this characterisation, there are (as we discuss in this report) various features of the current competition that unassailably lend themselves to such comparison. However, for our part, whether this is the start of a new Cold War or more simply a deepening strategic competition between China and the US, the material outcomes are the same: a forced regionalism or the creation of blocs premised on ideological interest (democracy, autocracy, and non-alignment), a spill-over of superpower competition to Africa, and the re-making of the global order as we have understood it over the last three decades. These dynamics are converging in a push for Africa to recalibrate to ongoing structural changes.
- At an inflection point: US perspective of the current geopolitical competition. President Biden has described the world as being at an “inflection point”: the end of the post-Cold War era and the start of a decisive decade in which the major powers, China, Russia and the US, compete to define what comes next (see here). As it relates to China, the US has unequivocally declared itself as being in a “strategic competition”, one in which it intends to outcompete China by galvanising collective action through a coalition of partners and allies, and by defining the rules for the emerging technology, cybersecurity and economic era (see here). Overall, the US’s quest to outcompete China and Russia has compelled the country to adopt a strong outward-looking foreign policy in which it is further strengthening existing partnerships, as well as leveraging those partnerships in new ways, for example, cooperation between NATO and Indo-Pacific powers. The US’s hasty re-engagement with Africa over the past 12 months (as borne out by the extent of high-level diplomatic engagements on the continent) is further evidence of this approach.
- The parameters of the current geopolitical competition. The US-China competition is principally being driven by competition across four interrelated spheres: (i) economics (trade and investment), (ii) technology, (iii) military defence, and (iv) diplomatic influence (each of which we discuss in some detail in this report). By extension, China’s alignment with Russia has positioned the war in Ukraine as a further dimension to the geopolitical competition, especially as China and Russia share a partnership of “no limits” (see here), which the US perceives as tacit support from China for the war.
- Africa’s place in the unfolding US-China rivalry. The US has unambiguously sought to elevate engagements with Africa in order to rebuild ties with the continent that have ebbed after a period of disengagement, or “apathy” (see here) from Washington. Implicit in this new drive is a concerted push to reduce China’s growing influence in Africa (which is marked most prominently through the commercial channel), as well (to a lesser extent) to diminish Moscow’s capacity to draw on historical sympathies across key African states to weaken the US’s capacity to isolate and contain Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. These forces present complex risks for African economies, as we emphasised in our prior report in this series. And yet, positioned differently, Africa’s prominence in the unfolding geopolitical era presents select opportunities for the continent. In this regard, we argue that a pragmatic, ‘actively non-aligned’ foreign policy approach, centred on domestic and regional interests, can be deployed to draw value from the US’s ramp-up in African engagement, and to deepen and mature lines of commercial engagement with China, too. We will return regularly to this balance through the course of this unfolding report series.