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April 18, 2019

Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War

The Modern Cold War: A Symbiotic System in the New Era

Yihong Shi

When referring to the relationship between the United States and China, many commentators mentioned the “new Cold War” to describe the rivalry. A number of resemblances between the two new hegemons certainly remind the world of the bipolar structure decades ago between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the consequential turbulence worldwide. While China is characterized as a powerful counterpart of the United States in many areas, as individuals growing up with cross-cultural backgrounds, our generation sees loads of differences within the similar frames.

Admittedly, the history repeated itself to some extent when it comes to leveraging each other. Among the traditional strategies, the United States accentuated the sovereignty issue to assail its enemy and it still does so now. One compelling example involves the South China Sea, which has always been at the center of the storm and is predicted as the flashpoint of the new cold war. As William Whitney Stueck stated in The Road to Confrontation, American Policy to China and Korea which focused on the U.S. concerns of credibility abroad, the U.S. government tried to disable Soviet Union’s ability to reach and control Indochina by taking over the South China Sea. Likewise, to respond to American stance which is enunciated in Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy and Trump’s Asia Policy, China made a strong sovereignty claim over the South China Sea and militarized the islands. This is also viewed as China is eager to have a say in sovereign issues. A parallel can hence be drawn to the Cold War. Fundamentally it’s an assertion of might and the dominance of world order. But one thing is certain: China does not have the aggression of military reach or ideological appeal as Soviet Union did as it never portrayed itself as aggressive but benign.

While Mutual Defense Treaties signed by the United States and its allies manifest the obligation to counter China in the Asia-Pacific, there are far more fields at stake, which is much more complicated and comprehensive than the Cold War. With the advance of China’s prosperity, the rivalry has reached a point where the two adversaries are at odds in economic, cultural, ideological and many other factors. At the Group of 20 summit, the United States and China failed to cooperate as a result of lacking common interests, demonstrating both countries are at the brink of Cold War 2.0. However, unlike the arms race, within which excluding a country and technologies from the outside world is plausible, it’s not the case anymore in modern globalization. Both United States and China are experiencing a downward economy partly because of the sanctions imposed on each other. Correspondingly, the American dismay in the industrial heartland intensified the polarized political environment while China has to tolerate the rapid slowdown due to the absence of strong stimulus. In retrospect, we do see countries that were able to solve their own problems, but, given the current global environment, countries are more increasingly interconnected and entangled with one another.

Nevertheless, the situation becomes more intense for more powers are involved. Since the United States started seeking countries to unify a united front to face China, China also cozied up to neighboring countries, conducting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), perceived as an overwhelming countervailing force. Again this duplicated the belligerency we noticed at the Cold War. The former Secretary of United States Dean Acheson mentioned American alliances are “situations of strength” to check the Soviet Union’s tendency to surpass the collective power of western world. However, the collective power of the western world has changed drastically during the last decade. Especially the past few years witnessed Brexit, the United States withdrawal of Paris Agreement and many other upheavals including the rise of terrorism. Commentators assess that the alliance is weaker and less influential and in the meantime, it is seen that China and other powers are paving their way to success using burgeoning markets and unique political systems. For many decades, the western world viewed the European way as the only path towards modernism and judged the rest of the world from a position of moral superiority. It saw its conditions and experiences not as preconditions of modernization but rather certain characteristics of their own culture. “The western world order has – in its post-1945 idiom – placed a high premium on democracy within nation-states while attaching zero importance to democracy at the global level”, as it is stated in When China Rules the World. Learning from history, the west is encouraged to understand the original ways of emerging powers.

Instead of exacerbating the political tension with each other, both the United States and China should adopt a mutually beneficiary approach to wind down the confrontation. Upon this basis of mutual trust, it will be possible for both sides to conduct cooperation in various aspects regardless of the ideological differences over domestic governance models and differing viewpoints on rebuilding the world order. The world today is definitely different from what it used to be during the period of the Cold War. Only if we can compete whilst understanding each other in a positive manner, can we possibly hope to build a harmonious world, which Fei Hsiao-Tung, a renowned Chinese anthropologist once pictured.

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