Everyone, it seems, in these dark troubled times has been seeking solace where they can find it. In China, a stream of movie blockbusters has sought to shore up national pride, such as The Battle at Lake Changjin which depicts valiant men from the People’s Volunteer Army fighting in freezing wastes during the Korean War and became the country’s biggest grossing movie within days of its release on National Day.
‘How many Americans do I have to kill to be a hero?’ asks one of its protagonists. The film was so successful – even exceeding the Wolf Warrior franchise, a Chinese version of James Bond with special agents – that a sequel was immediately agreed.
A nationalist narrative is all-pervasive – particularly among the young – fuelled by growing self-confidence and by a reaction to what is seen as American bellicosity. Chatham House’s China expert Yu Jie has seen the shift personally. ‘Whenever I go back to teach classes at Peking University, I’m struck by students saying things like “why do Westerners hate us so much?”’ she says.
In the US, China is the one significant policy area on which Joe Biden has largely followed Donald Trump – albeit with more politeness. The withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been chaotic but it has removed one ‘never-ending war’ and allowed Washington to focus more of its energy on confronting China – so far with rare consensus between Democrats and Republicans.
John Mearsheimer traces the malaise back to the ‘liberal triumphalism’ which marked the demise of Communism in the early 1990s. Back then he was almost a lone voice in warning of the dangers of a powerful China – recently he concluded an essay by predicting a ‘dangerous security competition is all but unavoidable’. He may still be a hawk but his views are now less likely to be dismissed outright.
US-China rivalry forms the backdrop for 2022, as Biden marks a difficult first anniversary as US president and as Xi Jinping prepares for his party’s congress later in the year in which he may be preparing to consolidate his power, potentially for life.
Both leaders made a first tentative foray back into diplomacy with their much-analysed video summit last autumn. But their long discussion – more an exchange of speeches – demonstrated the depth of the gulf between them. As the two big powers turn against each other and turn more inwards, how does this affect their ability to corral countries into their orbit, and the choices those countries have to make?