08 Apr 2019
Topics ChinaU.S.
“Are we in a New Cold War?” This question was recently posed by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on both Facebook and Twitter, with both polls resulting in a 56% response in favour of ‘yes’ from those that took part. Global-is-Asian examines the arguments both for and against.

What is a Cold War?

In order to examine whether we are or are not in the midst of a new cold war, it’s pertinent to examine previous events and define just what a ‘cold war’ is. At its most basic, the Cold War was a polarising state of non-violent geopolitical tension between the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that lasted from 1947 to 1991.

During this time, the world’s most prominent world powers stood opposed in ideological, military, social and economic political goals, but with the constant threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) — essentially the prospect of global nuclear Armageddon — preventing them from fighting each other in conventional military engagements.

A question of ideology

While the US and the USSR were opposed on virtually every conceivable level, China and the US’ principal source of tension is economic. Not economic ideology as with the last Cold War — but economic rivalry.

Dr Selina Ho, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, believes the world is not experiencing a new Cold War, but says the current trade war between Trump’s America and China is a symptom of a larger issue — the ascendancy of China as a rival power.

“There is now a consensus within the US, both with those who advocated engagement in the past and those who advocated containment, that engaging the Chinese and integrating them into the international system has not produced the desired results,” explains Ho.

She suggests that the US hoped an engaged and global China would evolve into a nation that was friendly to US interests and embrace democratic values.

“This has not happened” says Ho.

“There is a bipartisan consensus that China is eating America’s lunch economically, technologically, and in terms of a power balance shift.”

But Dr Ho, who teaches International Relations of Asia after World War 2 as part of the Masters in International Affairs (MIA) programme, argues that it is inappropriate to call it a new Cold War in the same sense as the original Cold War, which was marked by an ideological schism between Communism and democracy/capitalism.

“China is effectively not a Communist country or economy any more. Capitalism is rife albeit with Chinese characteristics.

“While not an ideological contestation, it is a power contestation and a contestation between two models of development — the Beijing model vs the Washington model.”

Arms Race or Tech Race?

The backdrop to the original Cold War was an arms race, where both sides tried to outdo each other in terms of the research, design and development of military technology — specifically intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons. It was this hugely costly arms race that contributed to the collapse of the USSR, as the US simply outspent its competitor.

Where the US and China differ however, is that the two powers are trying to outstrip each other in technology rather than military equipment. Technological innovations ranging from smartphones, to advanced artificial intelligence and clean energy, have all been high on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agenda.

Meanwhile a report written by the Center for the New American Security (CNAS) found that “China is no longer in a position of technological inferiority relative to the United States but rather has become a true peer that may have the capability to overtake the United States in AI.”

Says Ho, “The trade war is only the start.

“The long-term conflict will be over cyber-space and technology. Increasingly, middle powers and smaller countries are starting to choose sides — this is already happening with Canada and Europe (where) the US government has warned about 5G cooperation with the Chinese.”

Military Flashpoints

Despite Ho’s belief that economics and technology are the main sources of friction between the rivals, Professor Kanti Prasad Bajpai, Director at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation and Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies, disagrees. He believes that military rivalry is increasingly becoming part of that relationship and that, for this reason, we can legitimately call the present situation a new Cold War.

He highlights growing tensions in the South China Sea where China has constructed artificial islands, with traditional US allies such as Japan becoming increasingly concerned about China’s military ambitions in the region.

“Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea impinge on US allies — the Philippines and Japan — as well as a quasi-ally, Vietnam, and have caused a further deterioration in relations,” says Bajpai.

“Beijing is unhappy over the US' freedom of navigation opportunities (FONOPS) in these waters and US support to Taiwan, including American arms sales.”

Spheres of Influence

Another trait of the original Cold War was the idea of ‘spheres of influence’. It was not just the main actors that were opposed, but each had their own ‘supporting actors’, countries that were effectively told to choose a side. Western Europe, for example, was on the side of the US, and the Warsaw Pact nations in the East under the yoke of Soviet cultural, political and military influence.

This too, is a development we are currently witnessing with the US and China, says Bajpai.

“The US is unwilling to concede a Chinese sphere of influence in the region. China and the US do have ideological differences which are quite public, especially over the proper relationship between the government and business.”

No winners, only losers

Should the current cold war ‘heat up’, the damage to the world and especially Asia would be catastrophic, warns Bajpai.

He says, “Even if the conflict was kept to the conventional level, their relations would be damaged for many years. The fallout globally and regionally in Asia and East Asia in particular would be severe - diplomatically, politically, and economically. The US is still military superior in virtually all classes of weapons, but in the South China Sea and West Pacific, China has formidable capabilities. In that sense, the two are increasingly well matched.”

“As for cyber capabilities,” he adds, “ They both have great strength and could disrupt not only each other’s assets and functioning but also have collateral effects on third parties.”

Both international and regional organisations such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would find it difficult to play much of a role if there was a serious crisis, but both could work now to encourage conflict resolution between the two states.

“ASEAN in particular has created and sustained a number of vital forums where both powers meet regularly — ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and the East Asia Summit (EAS),” explains Bajpai.

“If ASEAN concludes a Code of Conduct (COC) agreement with China on the South China Sea disputes, it will have taken one issue off the table in the current tensions between China and the US.”

(Photo by: Sgt. Amber Smith)

If you’re interested in reading such content, subscribe here.

Topics ChinaU.S.