US President Donald Trump talks to China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Philippe Wojazer
US President Donald Trump talks to China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Philippe Wojazer

“Cold War mentality” is the catchphrase that China typically uses when it is criticized by the United States and other Western countries, such as Australia.

In 2009, when the Barack Obama administration published its National Intelligence Strategy (NIS), in which China – together with North Korea, Iran and Russia – was listed as a country that challenged US interests, Beijing immediately urged Washington “to abandon Cold War mentality and prejudices.”

On several occasions over the past two years, Beijing has similarly accused Australia of adopting a “Cold War mentality” vis-à-vis the communist power.

The phrase has been used with increasing frequency in relation to the US since the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency, as Washington has hardened its view of the one-party state.

In the 2009 NIS, China was listed third among America’s four main challengers and the document’s description of the country wasn’t very hostile.

In contrast, in the Trump government’s National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), all of which were published over the last two months, China is painted much more adversely. In the first two documents, the People’s Republic is put first among the top security threats facing the US. These also include Russia, two “rogue states” (namely North Korea and Iran), and terrorist groups. In the last strategy, it is placed second, after Russia.

That’s why, immediately after the publication of these three documents, Chinese officials, including Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons, denounced them and urged the US to discard what they call an “outdated cold-war mentality and zero-sum game mindset.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson sang the same chorus after Trump’s State of the Union address on January 30 because. In that speech, the American president said: “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.”

Though very brief, such a reference to China in his 80-minute address infuriated Beijing. A Chinese academic told the party-run Global Times: “It is alarming and provocative for Trump to call China a US rival again and especially to lump China together with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.”

US President Donald Trump talks to China’s President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Philippe Wojazer

Indeed. Washington’s China posture has radically shifted. The globe’s most powerful authoritarian state is now seen as the top security threat facing America, representing a menace in everything from the military and economic spheres to the cultural and ideological.

This change in Washington could potentially develop into a full-blown rivalry between the world’s incumbent and rising superpowers. Should this happen, it would cause huge and dire consequences, not only for the two biggest economic and military powers on earth, but also for the world at large.

An antagonistic American-Chinese enmity in the 21st century might well be far graver than the Cold War between the US and the communist-ruled Soviet Union of the last century. Worse still, if escalated, it could lead to a devastating military conflict, possibly a third world war.

Given such a danger, it’s wise and vital that Beijing calls for cooperation, not confrontation, “through concrete actions,” because, as it correctly maintains, that is “the only right choice” for China and the US to “ensure the sound and steady development of [their] relations” and to “maintain world stability and prosperity.”

But whilst it is noble to make such a call, it isn’t enough. Moreover, Beijing is being quite disingenuous when it paints itself as cooperative, responsible and benign with regard to the US.

Trump’s NSS states: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

With some justification, many would agree with such a description of China.

Take the Asian giant’s trade policies for example. On many occasions, Trump has, implicitly or explicitly, called for Beijing to curb some of the unfair practices (e.g. steel overcapacity, intellectual property rights abuses and market access restrictions) that lead to America’s chronic trade imbalance with China.

While his concerns about the deficit and lack of fairness and reciprocity in US-China economic relations are legitimate, these haven’t been addressed.

America’s deficit in goods with the world’s biggest market increased from US$347 billion in 2016 to US$375 billion (the highest level) last year. Indeed, in a call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, last month, Trump “expressed disappointment that the [US’s] trade deficit with China has continued to grow” and “made clear that the situation is not sustainable.”

In addition to Trump, other business and political leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, have urged the Chinese leadership to observe global rules and deal with those trade abuses.

The Trump administration’s three key security-related documents are also critical of China’s posture in the South China Sea.

The NDS states Beijing is “militarizing” the hotly disputed and strategically vital waters, while the NSS specifies that such “efforts to build and militarize outposts [in the area] endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.”

The NPR is even more specific and alarmist, pointing out that Beijing “has rejected the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal that found [its] maritime claims … to be without merit and some of its related activities illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.”

Just before, and then after, his inauguration, Trump and many of his top aides, were – (rightly)  rightly – critical of China’s maritime adventurism.

The view that under Xi Jinping the PRC is not only becoming more authoritarian at home but also seeking to export its authoritarianism globally and often at America’s expense, has much to support it.

During much of the past year, his government – unexpectedly – virtually ignored the issue. But it’s now going back to its initial harsh posture vis-à-vis Beijing’s expansionism. A key reason for this is probably that, as the Pentagon’s NPR states: “China has continued to undertake assertive military initiatives to create ‘facts on the ground’ in support of its territorial claims.”

Many neutrals would also probably agree with the Trump government’s latest description and denunciation of China’s expansion. Recently published satellite images show that, in 2017, Beijing built huge, military-related facilities on the seven reefs in the Spratlys it had massively expanded over the previous years. The Spratly archipelago are also claimed by other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

China no longer hides or denies its expansion and militarization activities in the resource-rich sea, which is also one of the world’s most important shipping-lanes.

Many other examples can be cited to demonstrate why it’s unsurprising that the Trump administration believes China, together with Russia, “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” or that Beijing “is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats, to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

For example, the view that under Xi Jinping, who has become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, the PRC is not only becoming more authoritarian at home but also seeking to export its authoritarianism globally, in Europe, and often at America’s expense, has much to support it.

Against this background, though unfortunate, it’s hardly surprising that the Trump government views China as a “revisionist” or “rival” power and, consequently, pursues a tough posture vis-à-vis Beijing. In the same vein, it can be said that the PRC must shoulder much of the blame for the US’ confrontational posture – or “Cold War mentality” – toward it.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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