The Taliban’s reconquest of Kabul following Washington’s meek withdrawal has triggered speculation amongst progressives that the latter plans to halt China’s economic and geopolitical advance through the age-old method of war by proxy.

After 20 years of stalemate in Afghanistan, is it possible that the United States could gleefully watch idly as a Taliban regime in Kabul bleeds a competitor with aspirations for global power? Additionally, even if through different means, does Washington plan to contain China in Latin America, Africa and other parts of Asia too – all regions where Beijing has enhanced its influence over the past two decades?

It was in these same regions that the original Cold War played out between the Soviet Union and the US. Despite reaching the brink of direct conflict on a handful of occasions, the two superpowers never did attack each other’s territory, but proxy wars dotted the globe. Angola, Vietnam and Nicaragua, Afghanistan, were just some of the major theatres of the Cold War.

Fight for influence

China is the first and only country that has, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, emerged to compete with the US for global dominance. Depending on what measures one chooses to employ, China is now arguably the world’s biggest economy (albeit only in the realm of production; the US still remains the world’s preeminent financial power).

Through the Belt & Road Initiative, Beijing has signalled that it intends to extend its economic influence through a plethora of infrastructural investments. The $65 billion slated for China–Pakistan Economic Corridor is but a fraction of the $1 trillion that Beijing is expected to invest in Belt and Road Initiative projects across the globe.

The US experience in Afghanistan makes clear that even if Washington retains the option to bomb a country to pulp and occupy it with reckless abandon, such imperial adventures do not necessarily advance even a superpower’s overall global standing.

This lesson is what explains Washington’s shift inward. The Biden administration’s first order of serious business was the announcement of a $1trillion domestic investment package to rehabilitate America’s crumbling infrastructure. By following through on Trump’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan, Biden has also confirmed that Washington is effectively shifting focus away from the so-called “war on terror” towards strategic containment of China.

It is thus apparent that American imperial strategists are at the very least tempering neoliberal “free markets” and military adventurism – both dominant ideologies in Washington’s policymaking circles since the end of the Cold War. A “new cold war” against China that would allow for military-strategic objectives to be achieved without high-profile “failures” like the war in Afghanistan fits the bill.

But to the extent that increasingly strained US-China ties will shape the fortunes of our putatively shared world for decades to come, it is worth bearing in mind that the prospective “new cold war” is fundamentally dissimilar to the superpower conflict that defined the 20th century.

A United States soldier at the Kabul airport. Photo credit: US NAVY/Central Command Public Affairs/ Isaiah Compbell/ Reuters

‘New cold war’

The Soviet Union espoused socialism as an alternative to global capitalism. It supported national liberation struggles all over the globe. Its practical commitments were certainly flawed, in some places even anti-emancipatory. But the fact that an ideological alternative to capitalism existed at all was incredibly significant.

The “new cold war” has not, at least till now, been characterised by any meaningful ideological contestation. The “trade war” that the Trump administration initiated with Beijing was not insignificant, but trade between the two countries still dwarfs any other bilateral relationship. Similarly, Beijing is partially challenging Wall St­­reet’s financial dominance but is yet to transcend the logic of capital.

Even if I take no other metric, China–Pakistan Economic Corridor has exacerbated existing class, ethnic-national and ecological divides within Pakistan. I would be the first person to name China’s developmental footprint anti-imperialist but to date, CPEC has not equated to a model of development that transcends capitalism or colonial statecraft.

It is also telling that Beijing is one of the few countries to signal that it could recognise and work with a Taliban-controlled government in Kabul. This implies that China believes it can give as good as it gets in any war by proxy. As if not more importantly, it is not necessarily opposed to right-wing militant ideologies like that which the Taliban profess, so long as there are no spillover effects in restive Xinjiang.

In sum, if we are witness to a “new cold war”, the progressive causes of freedom, dignity and equity are at greater risk. Indeed, given Pakistan’s history as a rentier state, the prospect of both China and the US patronising our establishment for competing purposes portends a great deal of conflict and suffering for already brutalised ethnic peripheries, women, working people and minoritarian confessional groups.

This article first appeared in Dawn.