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Foreign Policy

Prospects of a New Cold War

Jul 16, 2018
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University

Last month, in an article, I proposed that although there will be a marked increase of friction and competition between China and the US in the coming five years, bilateral relations will still be basically stable so long as the two sides work together to properly manage and control their differences. On the other hand, I did not exclude the possibility of friction moving out of control, bilateral relations seriously deteriorating and even certain cold war situations emerging against the backdrop of substantially increased competition. That article explained how roughly stable relationship will be achieved. Now I’ll focus on the emergence of certain cold war-like situations.

In the past half year, the US administration has published a series of strategic documents, including the national security strategy report, the defense strategy report, and nuclear posture review report, in which China is identified as a main competitor and a revisionist state. It has also adopted a series of friction-increasing measures on questions of Taiwan and trade. The China-US relationship is obviously worsening. If such a trend is not changed or controlled as soon as possible, the two countries may well find themselves in certain Cold War situations.

New cold war situations may well occur in the following four circumstances.

First, a new cold war is possible if the two sides fail to effectively manage and control the markedly increasing competition and friction caused by the significant change in the balance of power. The emergence and increase of friction in the political, economic, military, cultural and other fields will cause serious deterioration of bilateral relations. An important feature of the Cold War was precisely comprehensive confrontation in the political, economic, military, cultural and ideological fields.

Second, if either party is bent on challenging the other’s core interests, serious crisis and confrontation will ensue. As the crisis escalates out of control, confrontation and conflict will spill over to other fields, leading to a cold war. At present, the biggest risk in this regard lies with the Taiwan question. The two Taiwan-related acts produced by the US seriously violate the one-China principle. If really implemented, they will cause serious conflict and confrontation between China and the US.

Third, a cold war may also be triggered when the US launches a trade war against China and Beijing is forced to take countermeasures. The US seems to have made up its mind on a long-term trade war against China and on escalating it to comprehensive economic and trade wars by taking the flames of war into the fields of technologies, investment and finance. It will not only lead to a lose-lose situation but also change economic relations and trade between the two countries from being the ballast stone of a stable China-US relationship to the direct cause of a cold war.

Fourth, serious military conflict may break out due to miscalculation or accidental discharge of fire, leading to severe deterioration of relations. In recent years, as the balances of military strength changes, especially in the western Pacific, military frictions have increased, with risks piling up. A military crisis or conflict may occur in hotspot regions and traditional security fields (especially between their aircrafts and vessels above and in the South China Sea). It may also take place in new security fields, such as cyber space and outer space. The disruptive influence of the latter will be even more difficult to estimate.

Besides, the huge uncertainties in the Trump administration’s external policies may well create black swans in China-US relations. Against the backdrop of increased strategic competition, these events will make it even more difficult for the two countries to manage and control their differences and friction and thus relations will worsen.

The decades-long Cold War in the latter half of the last century was the result of vicious interactions between the USA and USSR. The lessons of two allies in the anti-fascist war quickly turning into enemies were profound. The Cold War greatly endangered not only the two countries but also world peace and development. Unfortunately, the US and Russia have already been trapped in a cold war in recent years, albeit in a different form and scale. But like the previous Cold War, it also involves a comprehensive confrontation between two nuclear weapon states.

Given the strengths of China and the US, a Cold War-style confrontation, if it happens, will rather likely be global, which will have a negative impact on world peace and development.

The China-US relationship is now at a crossroads. The path the two countries choose will bring them completely different futures. Undoubtedly both sides should work together to strive for a stable relationship. It is not only the only correct and wise choice but also the historic responsibility for the two countries.

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