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When a Cold War in East Asia is not a Cold War

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In Brief

In recent months, it has become fashionable to describe the emerging strategic rivalry between China and the US and its allies as a new Cold War — even rival trade negotiations are likened to an ‘economic Cold War’. And yet, there have been other great power conflicts and rivalries before. Is the Cold War really a useful paradigm for the tensions caused by China’s rise — and if so, what are its most relevant lessons for East Asia today?


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The Cold War comprised the second half of Europe’s ‘short’ 20th century, which lasted from 1914 to 1989. The First World War and Russian Revolution destroyed Europe’s old order, and gave rise to an age of totalitarianism. Soviet policy after the defeat of Nazi Germany drew on old Russian fears and traditions but the communist ideology that it espoused was global in ambition and attraction. Resisting further communist expansion was important for the West because there was no ideological and, or so it seemed at times, practical limit to it. The strategy of ‘containment’ sought to build countervailing military and economic centres on the Soviet periphery, to isolate communism politically, economically and militarily, and ultimately — in the words of ‘NSC 68’ (the 1950 National Security Council report to the US president) — to ‘foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system’.

Despite superficial parallels between today’s China and the Soviet Union (not least a peculiar interest in white-wall tyres) it is difficult to see that current differences between China and the Philippines, or China and Japan, amount to a similar threat to the existence of the ‘free world’ itself. This is not to belittle the challenge that China’s view of international affairs poses to the system of international law and the principle of (legal) equality of states on which the current international system is based. But China’s aspirations are not to sweep away the domestic political systems of the US and its allies, nor are they expansionist in the way that the Soviet Union subjugated Eastern Europe, or sought to do in Afghanistan or Angola. China and the West are not isolated from each other in the way the Soviet Union was, and today’s conflict is about status, not ideology.

Increasing firmness and resolve in meeting Chinese provocations may well be necessary to manage regional tensions, but even more forceful proposals for pushing back against China are still a far cry from the economic, political and military necessities that fighting the Cold War imposed on the US and its allies. There is a danger that evoking the image of the implacable Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, there is one important aspect that East Asia today does share with the Cold War (and earlier times): the fact that war between the great powers is becoming thinkable again. (Re)Learning to live in the shadow of a possible third World War means that the geostrategic holiday of the post-Cold War era is well and truly over for the countries of East Asia. Managing rapid military-technological competition is not something the US or its allies do very well any more. It has been a while since escalation paths, crisis stability or theatre and strategic balance were the subject of presidential campaigns and household debates. And without a serious threat, the US and its allies were spared the difficult choices about the risk and loss of sovereignty that participation in an integrated alliance system entails.

Overall, the Cold War example is thus more useful as a reminder of how difficult managing great power conflict in Asia will be than for any insights about the particular challenge posed by China. China is fundamentally different from the Soviet Union, and so will have to be US and allied strategies to deal with it. On the positive side, this means that a new Cold War is not inevitable, or even likely. On the negative side, however, the Cold War was also a historic success, because great power rivalry did not result in major power war. Ensuring that the same is true this time again will be difficult enough, even without misleading historical analogies.

Stephan Frühling is Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

2 responses to “When a Cold War in East Asia is not a Cold War”

  1. What happens in the south China sea, some political analysts have described it as a new sort of cold war. US and its allies have formed a front againt Chinese claim in the Spratly islands and other disputed region. US has deployed its naval warships and LCS in Changi, Singapore.China considers such military procedure as a real threat to its coasts.

  2. Stephan Fruhling criticizes the use of the expression ‘new Cold War’ to describe the emerging strategic rivalry between China and the United States and its allies as inappropriate. He takes specific issue with an article I wrote for a special edition of The Security Times published for the annual Munich Security Conference held in Germany. My name was not explicitly mentioned by Fruhling but his first hyperlink takes the reader directly to my article.
    Fruhling bases his argument on a European-centred historical view of the Cold War and thus rejects what he takes to be my analogy linking present day strategic rivalry in Asia with the European-centered strategic rivalry of the past.
    As Fred Halliday points out in his entry on the Cold War in the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2001) there are at least two meanings of Cold War. Halliday writes, ‘”Cold War” was, however, also used in a more analytic sense, not to denote a very particular phase of East-West rivalry but rather to denote the very fact of the rivalry between the communist and capitalist systems itself, one that involved competition and confrontation, but not all-out “hot” war’ (p. 149). I used the term Cold War as an analytic devise to draw attention to the contemporary strategic rivalry between China and the United States that definitely includes competition and confrontation.
    I also qualified my use of the term Cold War by referring specifically to the ‘new Asian Cold War’. By new I meant that it had distinct features from the European Cold War and that it was a nascent phenomenon.
    I wrote, ‘The new Asian Cold War is maritime in character with a geographic focus on the so-called first island chain that runs from the Kurile islands north of Japan to the Philippine archipelago in the south. The new Asian Cold War is more fluid than its European counterpart. It involves confrontation between China and two bilateral alliances, one between the U.S. and Japan in East Asia and the other between the U.S. and the Philippines in Southeast Asia’.
    Fruhling argues that ‘today’s conflict is about status, not ideology’. My article did not address this point. But on reflection I would disagree with Fruhling. China is motivated by what I might term ‘nationalist ideology with Chinese characteristics’. China is presently challenging East Asian regional order ¬and the legal norms that underpin it on the basis of historically derived notions of ‘indisputable sovereignty.’
    I concluded by article with these words, ‘China has instigated a new maritime Asian Cold War to disrupt the network of alliances linking Japan and the Philippines to the United States. China seeks to demonstrate to Tokyo, Manila and other regional states that the U.S. lacks both the will and the capacity to respond to China’s continual assertions of sovereignty over remote islets and shoals. China does not expect quick results and is preparing for a prolonged test of U.S. resolve’.
    I rest my case. There is a new Asian Cold War in the making with Chinese not Soviet characteristics.

    Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor
    The University of New South Wales at ADFA

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