Conflict between USA and China. Image: iStock
Conflict between the US and China is a reality, but comparisons with the US-Soviet Cold War fall short. Image: iStock

In the midst of a deepening trade war with China, the US in quick succession imposed sanctions against a unit of China’s Defense Ministry and its director for purchasing Russian military equipment and announced a new sale of US$330 million in military equipment to Taiwan. It also accused China of meddling in US elections and undertook a provocative freedom of navigation operation within the theoretical territorial seas of China’s claimed and occupied high-tide features Gaven and Johnson reefs, thus violating China’s regime of the necessity to obtain prior permission to do so.

China was already irritated by stepped-up US nuclear-capable B-52 bomber overflights of the South China and East China seas.

China formally protested each of these actions, canceled a scheduled meeting in the US between the head of its navy and the US chief of naval operations, postponed a military dialogue between the two and refused permission for a US Navy warship port call in Hong Kong. More significant, it abruptly canceled an annual mid-October meeting between US Defense Secretary James Mattis and a senior Chinese military officer.

This is just the latest manifestation of mounting tensions between the two countries on multiple fronts and may be a harbinger of more to come. Indeed, they may be on the brink of an across-the-board cold war “with 21st-century characteristics.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that Washington’s moves threatened the “total destruction” of four decades of gains in China-US relations.

China’s cultural and political influence is growing rapidly. The US now views it as a potential threat to the benefits it enjoys as the leader and arbiter of the current “international order.” Politicians, pundits and media warn of a coming “hot” war between China and the US.

But a hot war between the two is unlikely in the near future. China realizes the superiority of US military might and the US realizes it might not “win” such a war quickly or easily. Moreover, the possibility of a conflict escalating to the use of nuclear weapons is a powerful mutual deterrent. More likely is a “cold war.” Ominously, there are some geopolitical similarities to the US-Soviet relationship at the beginning of their Cold War.

Indeed, China’s aggressiveness and political gains in Asia – and the recent US switch to a more hostile policy toward China – may be analogous to the struggle and tension over Europe at the beginning of the Cold War.

China’s aggressiveness and political gains in Asia – and the recent US switch to a more hostile policy toward China – may be analogous to the struggle and tension over Europe at the beginning of the Cold War

The US-Soviet Cold War began in 1947 with a US declaration of a policy of “containment” with the goal of preventing Soviet expansionism and the spread of communism. Then-US president Harry Truman characterized the conflict as a contest between “free peoples and totalitarian regimes” – a clash of fundamental values and principle.

Like the US-Soviet ideological confrontation, the US-China struggle for domination of Asia is symptomatic of much deeper differences – in effect a “clash of civilizations.”

The new US National Security Strategy released in December 2017   characterizes the US-China struggle as “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order.…” It also labels China as a “revisionist power.” That means the US thinks China wants to change the existing rules, norms and values that govern relations between nations – the existing “international order.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has explicitly recognized this fundamental divergence of cultural identities and world views. He has encouraged a rejection of Western influence and implicitly of Western civilizational models. According to Xi, “many aspects of China’s modernization process must have Chinese characteristics and the Chinese Communist Party must provide guidance on every aspect of human behavior.”

The US Cold War policy of containment sought to combat the Soviet Union in all arenas short of military confrontation. But their militaries often “shadow-boxed” at military frontiers resulting in serious incidents like those now occurring between China and the US in the South and East China seas.

Moreover, the US and the Soviet Union supported opposing sides in some states’ internal conflicts such as in Korea and Vietnam and generally divided the world into two antagonistic blocs struggling for dominance. It is to be hoped that this scenario will not repeat itself, but there are already signs that it might – at least politically, as in the Philippines.

To combat Soviet influence and the spread of communism in Europe, the US implemented the Marshall Plan designed to rebuild the economy of Western Europe. The Soviet Union countered with the Molotov Plan to draw closer like-minded entities in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps analogous to the competing US and Soviet grand political-economic visions for Europe, China has proposed and begun to implement its grandiose vision of “One Belt and One Road.” Its implementation would (re)make China the manager, financier, driver and core of a vast trade and economic system connecting Asia with Eurasia and Europe.

As part of this grand plan, Chinese economic investment in the infrastructure of its territorial and maritime neighbors is already benefiting and thus positively influencing some vis-a-vis China despite US attempts to undermine confidence in it.

To combat the China “threat,” the US strategy is to “redouble [its] commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners that share respect for sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.”

This strategy has now been incorporated in its own grand vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” According to then US national security adviser, H R McMaster, the core principles of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise and open markets, and the freedom and independence of all nations.

Within this framework, the US is proposing – and pushing for – a renewal of the “Quad” – a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan and the US. To China, the intent of the Quad is to constrain and contain its burgeoning military power.

The basic assumption of the US during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union was rotten to the core and would eventually collapse under political and economic pressure – which it did in 1991. Some US policymakers and analysts seem to have similar hopes for China’s future

The basic assumption of the US during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union was rotten to the core and would eventually collapse under political and economic pressure – which it did in 1991. Some US policymakers and analysts seem to have similar hopes for China’s future.

The US-China relationship is clearly devolving into an escalating contest of wills and ways to dominate each other across the board and now involves trade and technology as well. According to former Australian prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd, the US and China are at the beginning of “a trade war, an investment war and a technology war.” Indeed, some Chinese analysts are calling the US attempt to make it harder for Chinese companies to acquire high-end technology “high-tech containment.”

The US is making increasingly strident attempts to counter China’s growing soft power. Because the US cannot hope to match China’s economic largesse, it must increasingly rely on the attraction of its economic and political values and the shared commitment of its allies and friends to democracy and the existing US led international order.

The US has launched a campaign of public condemnation of China’s behavior and of warning others of China’s nefarious intentions – in general, and in the South China Sea in particular. Then-Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris singled out China “as our biggest long-term challenge.” He warned that “without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

Clearly Harris and other influential US leaders see China as an “expansionist” nation like the US and the Soviet Union before it.

As a cold war between China and the US becomes increasingly plausible, the question leaders of Asian countries need to answer is who is likely to win it. Can China really be “contained” long enough for it to change from a potentially dangerous adversary to a benign cooperative power?

One factor in China’s favor is that the Xi Jinping government now has the luxury of continuity and consistency of leadership – and policy – something the US glaringly lacks. If you are a leader of an Asian country entrusted with the future welfare of your people, which country will you bet on?

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.

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