China warming to new Cold War?

BEIJING • When talk of a "new Cold War" between a United States-led coterie of allies and a Beijing- Moscow axis first made the rounds about two years ago, it did not stir much interest in China. In recent weeks, however, it has become a hot topic among the Chinese.

While the new interest in no way reflects China's desire to pursue such a development and conditions do not exist for a redux, precautions should still be taken to lower the chances of a flare-up, say analysts.

The Chinese interest was sparked after it was announced early last month that the United States would deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system in South Korea. While the move was to counter a threat from North Korea, China and Russia found such an advanced anti-missile system too close for comfort.

It did not help that the US strongly supported a July 12 ruling by an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague that invalidated China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. Since the two developments, Chinese media has taken to using xin leng zhan, or new Cold War.

A July 29 commentary by the state Xinhua news agency was headlined "New Cold War looms large in North-east Asia as Seoul accepts Thaad". It argued that the deployment would spark an arms race and force countries to choose sides like they did during the Cold War.

An Aug 12 editorial in Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Chinese Communist Party, said a "US-Japan-South Korea coterie linked by Thaad is forming, and it is unknown whether China, Russia and North Korea will respond in unison". "What is sure is North-east Asia is under imminent threat of a new Cold War," it added.

Children with Russian and Chinese flags before a welcoming ceremony for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing in June. Analysts say that rather than a Cold War-style confrontation, what is happening instead is a deepening of the Sino-Russian re
Children with Russian and Chinese flags before a welcoming ceremony for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing in June. Analysts say that rather than a Cold War-style confrontation, what is happening instead is a deepening of the Sino-Russian relationship due to increasingly aligned strategic goals, such as opposing American unilateralism. PHOTO: REUTERS

Chinese analysts are also interpreting issues through a "new Cold War" lens that pits China, Russia and North Korea against the US, Japan and South Korea.

American studies researcher Fan Jishe of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told a Singapore conference last month that Asean nations might have to "pick sides" between Beijing and Washington as a result of the latter's intervention in the region, fuelled by its Cold War mentality.

The buzz over the Cold War - a tense period from 1947 to 1991 when a US-led Western bloc vied with the then Soviet Union and its eastern allies for ideological and military influence in the world - also stems from developments in Sino-Russian ties.

China and Russia are set to deepen military cooperation by holding joint naval drills for the first time next month in the South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in overlapping territorial claims with several South-east Asian states.

The duo are also reportedly working on a proposal to counter the Thaad system, which may be deployed in Japan as well. Chinese scholars have urged Beijing to work more closely with Moscow on this front. In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Beijing, their 17th encounter since late 2012. They adopted three joint statements, including one aimed at challenging Western interpretation of international law for their actions.

The joint stance is a first for China and Russia, whose warming ties show that a new Cold War has begun, wrote Zhejiang University's Korean studies expert Li Dunqiu in a commentary published in the China Youth Daily on July 30.

Professor Li wrote that the new Cold War had begun with the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and is set to continue even after a new US president is elected in November. Though China does not welcome a new Cold War that might hurt its rise, it has to counter the US rebalance by moving closer to Russia and North Korea, he added.

Moscow's ties with Washington soured following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014. As for Beijing, it sees the Thaad deployment and the tribunal ruling as US-led moves to undermine its influence and interests.

Chinese analysts say the increased spotlight could be the work of media sensationalism or the efforts of hawkish elements to agitate for confrontation with the US. They reject it as a sign that China is warming to the idea of a new Cold War or taking steps in that direction, citing obstacles such as a lingering distrust between Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

Renmin University's Sino-US expert Jin Canrong said a key trait of the old Cold War was the focus on competition rather than cooperation, which is not the case now between China and the US.

"China remains committed to building a new type of major-power relationship with the US that avoids conflict and focuses on cooperation," he told The Straits Times, adding that another key obstacle is China's foreign policy principle of not forming alliances with foreign countries, not even with Russia.

American studies researcher Fan Jishe of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told a Singapore conference last month that Asean nations might have to "pick sides" between Beijing and Washington as a result of the latter's intervention in the region, fuelled by its Cold War mentality.

Peking University's North-east Asia specialist Wang Dong also does not think China and the US are entering into a new Cold War, though "manoeuvres such as balancing and counter-balancing are on the rise and leading to increased competition in US-China relations".

"Despite media sensationalism, China and the US are not entering into a new Cold War because, for one thing, the two are highly interdependent, economically and socially, and, for another, the cost of rushing into a new Cold War for nuclear powers like China and the US is prohibitively high," he told The Straits Times.

Analysts also say a Cold War-style confrontation is an unlikely prospect for now as Russia and China are not on an equal footing with the US, the world's only superpower.

What is happening instead is the Sino-Russian relationship deepening due to increasingly aligned strategic goals such as opposing American unilateralism. Their complementary needs, with a growing China providing an alternative market for Russia's energy exports amid Western sanctions, are also at play.

Despite the low odds, analysts say it would be wise to take steps to avert a new Cold War, which could be more damaging than the US-Soviet rivalry, given China's growing strength. Also, the trio collectively account for a quarter of the world's population and some 41 per cent of the global economy.

Many in China believe the US is the key factor. For instance, Professor Jin said the US should dial back its military rebalance in the region, which unnerves China, prompting it in turn to move closer to Russia.

But China too has a part to play, according to Professor Wang. He said China and the US are now trapped in a security dilemma, which means efforts to increase their own security will be perceived to be damaging to the other party. "Policymakers in both countries should acknowledge that and actively take measures to alleviate it," he added.

Professor Chen Jian, a Cold War expert at Cornell University, told The Straits Times that it boils down to having the correct understanding of the Cold War.

"A new Cold War is not going to happen if neither side makes serious mistakes, including mistakes related to misperceptions of a new Cold War," he said.

Singapore-based analyst Daniel Chua, who has studied the history of the Cold War, said the correct perspective is to look at recent developments from a bilateral point of view. "China and Russia may move closer and develop their own confidence-building measures, such as joint exercises, but these actions may not be aimed at the US. In fact, the US also conducts exercises with China," he told The Straits Times.

Assistant Professor Chua of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies added that a key factor lies in the management of US-China relations as both countries are adjusting to each other's dominance. For instance, when China takes assertive actions against smaller regional countries, including American allies, the US government would need to step in.

"So far Washington has been cautious, and I hope the US does not get drawn into any regional disputes. Keeping the US out of regional disputes will be an important step towards resolving them, especially with regard to the South China Sea," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'China warming to new Cold War?'. Print Edition | Subscribe