The PLA navy has expanded through massive funding as more carrier groups are rolled out. Photo: PLA Navy

Disintegrating diplomatic relations between China and the United States threaten to spark a New Cold War that could quickly turn hot.

Last week, a major report released by China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies warned of the dangers of rising tension in Sino-American affairs.

“If situations get out of control and a crisis happens, the impact on bilateral relations could be devastating. And that’s why dialogue is needed,” Wu Shicun, the president of the institute, said.

Key elements of the study were published in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party government, and illustrate potential flashpoints.

Focusing on what the white paper calls a “Cold War-esque great-power competition,” concerns are growing that intense rivalry could spill over into “armed conflict.”

“Military operations [by the US in the South China Sea] could easily trigger accidents, which risks further escalations,” the report stated.

“Given their close connection with state-to-state relations and national security, there is no doubt that confrontation and even deteriorating military relations between China and the US would substantially increase the possibility of a conflict, or even a crisis in their bilateral relations,” it added.

Diplomatic dialogue has at times resembled the grunts in a bar-room brawl.

During the past three months, the rhetoric emanating from Beijing and Washington has chilled the atmosphere amid the Covid-19 pandemic, economic upheaval, and escalating military activity in the South and the East China seas.

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A highly-contentious national security law, which will be imposed on Hong Kong, and the Taiwan conundrum have added to spiraling stress levels.

Indeed, there are even fears inside Xi’s administration that a US-inspired coalition will challenge the Communist Party’s right to rule. 

In March, an internal study from the Ministry of State Security concluded that China should be prepared for a “worst-case scenario of armed confrontation,” according to media reports.

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“People tend to draw a comparison between China-US ties today and Soviet Union-US ties in the Cold War period,” Wang Jisi, the president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said. 

“In my view, China-US ties today are maybe even worse than the Soviet-US relationship because the latter was at least ‘cold,’ despite a few sporadic ‘hot’ moments [such as the] Cuban missile crisis in 1962,” he added.

Wang made his remarks during a panel discussion at the aptly named World Peace Forum, which was organized by the prestigious Tsinghua University and China’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, earlier this month.

He pointed out that relations between the world’s two economic superpowers are “now suffering from forceful disengagement” after “four decades” of strengthening economic cooperation.

If that continues, the fallout from such a seismic shift could have catastrophic consequences.

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“The sentimental and material losses caused by heated quarrels and grudging decoupling, particularly during the pandemic period, are sensationally more distressing than the analogy of the Cold War,” Wang said in an edited version of his speech on the Caixin media website.

“One question is whether the China-US rivalry will last longer and cost more on both sides than the Soviet-US competition. Another is whether an unexpected event alongside the current China-US tensions will escalate into a deadly clash,” he added.

Still, Beijing has played a leading role in creating the situation by fortifying disputed reefs, sandbars and islets encompassing the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

These military installations for a resurgent PLA navy are part of a broader strategy known as the nine-dash line, an invisible boundary that infringes on international waters.

Up to US$3.4 trillion in goods and products pass through this shipping superhighway, a critical strand in the complex web of global trade.

“While the world fights Covid-19, China is moving closer to establishing regional [Southeast Asia] dominion,” Robert A Manning, of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and Patrick M Cronin, of the Hudson Institute in Washington, said.

“These actions, and the response by the United States and the countries in the region, will determine whether the future will be one of openness and shared prosperity or coercion and conflict,” they wrote in Foreign Policy last month.

Pleasantly warm would certainly be preferable than Cold War discourse or red-hot confrontation.