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Foreign Policy

Classic and New Cold War

Oct 02, 2018
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The annual East Economic Forum, first convened in Russia's biggest Far East city of Vladivostok in September 2015, is considered an important counter to western economic sanctions. Chinese President Xi Jinping was present throughout, from September 11 to 13, attracting broad attention.

Since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency in early 2017, China-US-Russia relations have shown unprecedented new characteristics.

From the perspective of the China-US relationship, through three key official strategic documents from late 2017 to early 2018, the current US administration has for the first time defined China as a main strategic competitor. Whilst US China policy during Barack Obama was characterized by cooperation and containment in the Trump-era it is characterized by all-round containment. If the present-day US-Russia relationship may qualify as a new Cold War, current US China policy is basically consistent with classic Cold War: mutual confrontation in political realms, ideological mutual finger-pointing, diplomatic isolation, economic blockades, and military standoff. The only difference is that China appears more accommodating and defensive than the Soviet Union.

Under Trump, complaints about unfair trade with China in the Obama era have become an escalating trade war, accusations regarding intellectual property rights have ballooned into allegations of spying and theft, worries about the " belt and road" initiative have evolved into assertions about overseas expansion of Chinese political and economic regimes, and the largely stable Taiwan policy in the Obama era is also giving way to a new round of trouble-making. It is worth pointing out that although China had already become the world's second largest economy in 2010 judging from the country's nominal GDP in US dollars, and the Chinese government began to promote the "belt and road" at the end of 2013, neither development prompted the US government then to draft a classic Cold War-style China policy. Judging from American media reports, the Trumpist China policy that has taken shape in 2018 is directly associated with policies the Communist Party of China put forward in October 2017 at its 19th National Congress. Correspondingly, since he re-assumed national leadership in 2012, Putin further consolidated presidential power through constitutional amendments, and accelerated building the Eurasian Economic Union.

What is truly serious is that, if fighting Obamaism with Trumpism is the natural logic of the polarized American political biosphere, the unprecedented present consensus among the Democratic and Republican Parties as well as non-governmental think tanks that transcends such polarizing logic will have far-reaching consequences. Even if President Trump can't get re-elected in 2020, the Democratic Party, which has even more ideologicalized values, is unlikely to bring about a thaw in bilateral ties.

Trump's anti-establishment political logic is especially conspicuous in US Russia policy, and such logic contradicts the US' fundamental strategic interests, which has resulted in a bipartisan consensus in the US Congress on reducing the president's decision-making power regarding Russia. Such joint actions, which seek to restrain the president's policy statements on Russia, have caused fierce political wrangling between the president and legislature that is both dramatic and historically rare

Judging from the structural regime of US global leadership, European allies constitute the core architecture of the system. Judging from the German and French opposition to the US-launched Iraq War in 2003, however, stability of the trans-Atlantic alliance is rooted in consistency between US and EU security strategies and orientations. Trump’s words about Crimea belonging to Russia undercuts EU Russia policy since 2014, which is equivalent to setting out to destroy the cross-Atlantic strategic consensus. Therefore, the Democratic and Republican Parties' unanimous approval in July 2017 of an act limiting Trump's authority for lifting sanctions against Russia was crucial for US global strategy. In order to get rid of suspicions over "Russian connections", Trump, like a soldier in Chinese chess that has crossed the boundary river, has no choice but to go ahead and constantly escalate sanctions against Russia. Which is why, unless Russia makes substantial concessions, US-Russia ties have little chance of improving in the foreseeable future.

The latest developments in China-Russia cooperation in the Russian Far East seen at the East Economic Forum are evidently both in line with the inherent logic of bilateral ties, but also reflect the increase in their mutual strategic needs under outside pressures.

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