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Cooling the Cold War mindset in Asia

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In Brief

There has been a tad elevation in the excitement of the political-security community about drawing lines in the sand around China’s rise and the interests of the United States and its allies in recent months, with more than a hint that a new Cold War is emerging in East Asia along the lines of that in earlier times between the old Soviet Union and the Western bloc.


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Perhaps this is more noticeable in some countries than others: in Australia, where a new government has been totally wrong-footed in its management of external relations through complicity with a security apparatus that a growing number of reasonable people are beginning to think is not subject to effective political control; in Japan, where the extreme right has been let off the leash; and in the Philippines, where there is political advantage in local nationalism over the rocks issue.

Significantly, though this current in American thinking about how to deal with the world is always swirling around under the surface, it is not currently a significant factor in mainstream or Obama administration thinking. The newly instigated US-China leadership dialogue is a powerful symbol of quite the opposite stream in both US and Chinese thinking. As can be seen in this pattern of developments, the challenge for the United States is to limit the impact of the excitable fringe in its management of its core bilateral relationship with China.

The fact is that the world in which the rise of China is taking place and the world in which the Cold War broke out are very different worlds. The United States and China are both locked into a global economic and political system that is characterised by deep interdependence. Economic interdependence between the Soviet Union and the United States through most of the Cold War was close to zilch.

China is committed to the same international rules and norms in the international trading system as the United States. The global economic and political regime was fundamentally bifurcated during the Cold War, and the development of common rules and norms did not extend beyond the so-called ‘free world’. These differences are profound. However incomplete and imperfect, today’s global economic-political system constrains the way in which its largest and most important adherents relate to each other if they behave rationally in their own self interests.

Well, one might object, economic interdependence before the Great War in Europe, on the outbreak of which much is being written in this anniversary year, was also high — but did it constrain war between the pretender of the day, Germany, and the established power, Great Britain? Economic interdependence and the international system in 1914 were entirely different from what has been constructed post-World War II. Also, of course, humans are prone to behave irrationally from time to time. But rarely will such behaviour be calculated or allowed to bring the highly valued system down.

In most of the US-aligned political-security community — with the important exception of that in the United States itself — understanding of these new interdependencies is neither part of the framework of strategic analysis nor widely understood. How else can one understand what passes for strategic analysis of the impact of Chinese economic power? One view is that this mindset has taken over foreign policy thinking in Australia, for example, in recent times, but there is some evidence of more nuance in the policy community there. The US Pentagon and strategic studies community more broadly suffer far less in the way of these limitations in the framework of their analysis, routinely drawing in economic, cultural, astro-physics, military, and a whole range of other talent into security scenario building and assessments.

In a timely review of this issue, Stephan Frühling’s lead essay this week asks: ‘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’? His answer is a resounding ‘no’.

‘Despite superficial parallels between today’s China and the Soviet Union … 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’.

That puts it as clearly as it can be put, for the moment. But this perspective also raises big questions about strategic thinking and policy making in our region, presently and most particularly in Australia and Japan.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

2 responses to “Cooling the Cold War mindset in Asia”

  1. A Maritime Test of Strength, The Security Times (January 31, 2014)
    East Asia’s New Cold War
    Carlyle A. Thayer
    A new Cold War is taking shape in East Asia between China and Japan. 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.
    The new Asian Cold War sharpened last year when China aggressively began to challenge Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku islands and Philippine sovereignty over a small shoal lying off its west coast.
    The Senkaku islands comprise five small islets and three rocky outcroppings covering a land area of eight square kilometres. They are located approximately 445 kilometers southwest of Okinawa. The Senkakus re-emerged as a point tension between China and Japan in September 2012 when the new Japanese government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe purchased three of the islets from private owners. China claimed that Abe had nationalized its territory.
    China immediately deployed civilian paramilitary ships and civil marine surveillance aircraft to the Senkakus where they continually intrude into Japan’s territorial waters and airspace.
    Early last year China escalated its aggressive tactics when, in separate incident, two People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) warships locked their fire control radar on a Japanese helicopter and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force vessel. Also PLAN warships regularly conducted military exercises in waters adjacent to the Senkakus, while Chinese J-10 jet fighters and H-6 bombers flew overhead.
    Japan responded to Chinese actions by permanently stationing Coast Guard ships around the Senkakus and by continually scrambling F-15 fighters to monitor flights by Chinese civil and military aircraft. In September, Japan identified China’s first use of an unmanned aerial vehicle near the Senkakus. Japan threatened to shoot the drone down if it intruded into its airspace. China responded by declaring that this would be an act of war.
    Tensions in East Asia erupted after China unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea including airspace over Japan’s Senkaku islands. All aircraft – civilian and military –were required to obtain prior authorization before entering the ADIZ, follow prescribed procedures to identify themselves, or face “defensive emergency measures.” China also declared its intention to establish other ADIZs “after necessary preparations.”
    Japan vehemently condemned China’s ADIZ as a “profoundly dangerous act that unilaterally changes the status quo… [and] unduly infringes on the freedom of flight in international airspace.” Japan demanded that China rescind it. The United States, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia joined Japan in protesting China’s ADIZ.
    In late November the U.S., South Korea and Japan separately flew military aircraft through China’s ADIZ without incident. The U.S. dispatched two unarmed B-52s bombers. On November 29 China announced that it had carried out its first patrol of its ADIZ. China also scrambled jet fighters to monitor two U.S surveillance aircraft and ten Japanese planes.
    China’s declaration of an East China Sea ADIZ, following a year of continual pressure on the Senkakus, proved to be a tipping point. In December the Japanese Cabinet approved the country’s first National Security Strategy and revised National Defense Guidelines. Japan also established its first National Security Council.
    Specifically citing China’s intrusions into waters around the Senkakus, Japan gave priority to defending Japan’s islands in the southwest. Japan’s defense budget was increased over the next five years to cover the procurement costs of twenty-eight F-35 stealth fighters, two Aegis destroyers, five conventional submarines, three surveillance drones, and the creation of a marine force equipped with seventeen Tilrotor aircraft and fifty-two amphibious vehicles.
    Prime Minister Abe also announced a policy of “proactive pacifism” under which Japan would play an enhanced leadership role in the region and strengthen its military ties with the U.S., South Korea, Australia and Southeast Asia. On December 26 Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a burial ground for Japan’s war dead which China’s views as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and aggression. The Chinese media carried reports that senior Chinese leaders were so offended that they vowed not to meet with Abe.
    In January 2013 the Philippines took its territorial dispute with China to a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal for resolution. China responded by singling out the Philippines for special attention.
    In May 2013, Chinese paramilitary ships and a PLAN frigate suddenly appeared at Second Thomas Shoal to prevent the Philippines from repairing a Landing Ship Tank (LST) that had been deliberately beached there in the late 1990s. The LST serves as a base for a handful of marines as a demonstration of Philippine sovereignty.
    Chinese paramilitary ships remain on station and continually harass Filipino fishermen and other commercial boats.
    Six days after China announced its ADIZ, Hainan province legislative authorities approved a new regulation requiring all foreign fishing boats and survey vessels to seek prior approval before operating in two million square kilometres of water claimed by the province. This represents nearly sixty percent of the waters included in China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.
    According to the regulations foreign vessels that refuse to comply will be forced from Chinese waters or boarded and seized. The waters claimed by Hainan province overlap with the Exclusive Economic Zones proclaimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Both countries lodged official protests. Manila declared, for example, that the regulation “is a gross violation of international law… escalates tensions… and threatens the peace and stability of the region.” Vietnam declared the measure “illegal and invalid.”
    On the same day that the Hainan province regulations were made public, China dispatched for the first time its only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and an escort of two destroyers and two frigates to the South China Sea for a series of training exercises. The flotilla was shadowed by the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser.
    On December 5, a Chinese naval ship ordered USS Cowpens to leave the area where the Liaoning was operating. When it refused an Amphibious Landing Ship Dock crossed within 500 meters of the Cowpens’ bow and stopped dead in the water. The USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action. The U.S. later lodged an official protest.
    The Cowpens incident raised regional concerns that China has decided to begin contesting the presence of U.S. naval ships in the South China Sea. The deployment of the Liaoning aircraft carrier raised further concerns that China might follow through on its November 23 declaration and establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea.
    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.

    • There are so many factual errors and leaps of logic in Mr Thayer’s comment that it lacks credibility.

      For one thing, it was not the Abe government that nationalized part of the Senkaku islands but its predecessor. The idea that the United States endorses every provocative act on the non-Chinese side of these territorial issues is nonsense. The United States has its own fish to fry and not within the construct of Mr Thayer’s manufactured Cold War which, in his ‘argument’, embraces not only China and Japan but also the US.

      Mr Thayer needs to get his facts right first and then apply some simple tests of logic to making connections between unconnected events.

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