Last year saw increased tension between two of the world’s largest economies, the United States and China, and that looks set to continue throughout 2019.
Under the leadership of US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both countries have increasingly brushed aside global norms, making way for one of the largest 21st-century rivalries.
Issues such as trade, security and human rights, which have troubled US-Sino relations since the Cold War era, have continued to escalate, and some fear that it might come to a head this year.
Concerns of a “Cold War confrontation” are brewing, according to Jie Chen, a Chinese international politics expert from the University of Western Australia.
Dr Chen is among the analysts who say the “immediate priority” and main potential flashpoint this year is US-China trade conflicts including “unfair Chinese practices” and intellectual property theft.
Following the 2018 G20 summit in Argentina, both leaders agreed to place a 90-day temporary truce on tariffs — which leaves Beijing to choose whether it will concede to a list of US demands.
If both parties do not agree on a deal by March 1, $US250 billion ($280 billion) worth of sanctions will increase from 10 per cent to 25 per cent.
On a number of occasions, Mr Xi has publicly said he will not buckle to Mr Trump’s trade demands and stressed that China needs to be self-reliant — resembling policies which date back to the Mao Zedong era during the Cold War.
However, increased tariffs have the potential to create a dent in both economies and analysts do not believe the two countries will follow through.
Dr Chen told the ABC the US-Sino relationship will be able to “cool down” with the more eye-catching items on the US list “more or less satisfactorily dealt with”.
However, “items which sound like it would erode the Communist Party control of the economy … the Chinese would dodge or reject”.
“President Xi’s position is really weakened domestically … When he is weakened, he tends to be more conscientious externally,” he said.
While tariffs are a crucial flashpoint, Willy Lam, lecturer of Chinese political economy from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the conflict was not one-dimensional.
“This Cold War is all-embracing,” he told the ABC.
Beijing’s ambitious Made in China 2025 project — where China aims to close the gap in cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics and DNA engineering with the rest of the global leaders in the field — has also worried Washington.
The US Government would like to see Beijing lessen government subsidies, investments and intervention in large Chinese companies.
“This is why we now see this all-out effort to feed out successful Chinese multinationals beginning with ITE and Huawei,” Dr Lam said.
However, according to Chinese-owned state media Global Times and Xinhua, relations between the two leaders are improving.
In a phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Xi before the new year, both expressed willingness to “reach an agreement through talks” and described the event as a “New Year’s gift”, according to the publications.
Beijing is not just accused of having predatory and unfair trade practices, but also of “aggressive” military modernisation — through a naval and air force build-up across the Taiwan straits as well as in the South China Sea.
China’s militarisation of islands in the regionally contested seas has become one of the world’s most concerning conflicts.
A failure to adopt a joint agreement during the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Corporation summitand a fierce debate on the topic in the East Asia summit points to the complexity of the issue.
Tensions are expected to ramp up this year, as key US allies Japan and the United Kingdom begin to conduct joint naval exercises, deemed by Beijing as “a threat to its sovereignty”.
Taiwan has also found itself caught in a diplomatic crossfire, described by a high-ranking Chinese politician as Beijing’s “most sensitive issue”.
Washington has increasingly become more public in deepening its bilateral ties with the self-ruled island.
Another regional issue the US faces is how to pressure China into dealing with the North Korean crisis.
While North Korea has not conducted any more nuclear testing, there is no evidence of its plans for denuclearisation — a topic critics say is a top priority in terms of regional security.
‘Economically important and menacing’
Potential crises in the region stem from a greater contest between the role of the US and China in the future of the Asian regional order.
The US has been highly influential in the region since World War II through its role in regional development and security.
Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement — which was a key part of former US president Barack Obama’s foreign policy — signalled a retreat from its strategic power in the region.
The move created a window for Beijing to step up its rhetoric through the “geopolitically agressive” Belt and Road project — economically linking China to almost all parts of the world.
“China is not just being looked at as a huge economic actor, a major source of tourism, full-fee paying students and international investments,” Dr Chen said, adding that China is also encroaching on Western liberal democratic values.
A change in regional hegemony due to the unconventional actions of both leaders has analysts concerned over the long-term prospects of not only the region, but global order.
“What you’re seeing is a looming unknown quantity as an emerging superpower with a not so-agreeable political system,” Dr Chen said.
“[China] is economically important and menacing to many countries, but it’s not a political soulmate for anyone.”
Dr Chen is referring to the historically US-led liberal international order and values, which are slowly crumbling under Mr Trump’s policies.
This explains what many see as the Trump administration’s inaction over Beijing’s violation of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, which have otherwise received widespread criticism.
This Cold War could be different from the last
The US-China relationship is considered by some to be at its lowest point since 1996 — described by Dr Lam as “engaged in a fully-fledged Cold War”.
However, if we’re seeing a new Cold War confrontation, this one would be much different from the first, said Dr Lam.
The context of this 21st-century rivalry is under the pretext of an expanding globalised world, where almost everything and everyone is connected through economic and social networks.
Because of this, analysts say it is in the interests of Asia-Pacific countries to refrain from any potential confrontation — especially on issues which would heighten the divide between China and the US.
For example, countries such as Australia, Japan and India have not defined a rigid position regarding alliances.
“What needs to be introduced [in the US] is a new China policy which should be comprehensive and include all necessary components: economics, trade, political, diplomatic, defence and alliance building and hopefully, promotion of democracy,” Dr Lam said.