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Paper no. 227                                   09.04.2001

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

Is a second Cold War in the offing? The ingredients are there.  Both US and China have much to lose having repercussions in the entire Asia Pacific region.  Earlier, with every confrontation between US and China like the Yugoslavia embassy incident, human rights issue and Falungong, trade between the two countries had only increased in the last few years.  Will Politics be in command or trade?- Director

The first Cold War took shape in the heartland of Europe following the culmination of the Second World War.  The ideological and military confrontation between the superpowers congealed along Central Europe.  This Cold War lasted from 1945 to 1989 and ended with the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union.  However, it was the Asia Pacific region at the other end of the global confrontation spectrum, where this confrontation manifested itself in actual armed conflict.  It was on the Korean Peninsula first, followed by Vietnam.

China emerged as the common military adversary of the United States in both these Cold Wars armed conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.  From the late 1960s, China initiated a Cold War of its own with the then USSR, which some analysts like to term as the second Cold War.  It would be recalled that prior to this China was a steadfast ally of USSR bound by a common communist ideology.  This however did not inhibit China in striking a quasi-strategic alliance with its most hated enemy, i.e., United States against the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  China in the mid-1980s, conscious of its loss of strategic utility to the United States reverted back to the Soviet Union following Gorbachev’s capitulation to all Chinese demands ranging from the border disputes, to Cambodia and Afghanistan.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991 brought China face the stark reality that the United States had emerged as the unipolar super-power.  Much that China hated this prospect, it was pragmatic enough to realise that China’s economic modernisation cannot not take place without investments from United States and Japan. The 1990s saw large scale investments by USA in China resulting in double digit rates of economic growth and the two-way trade in 2000 had crossed 100 billion dollars.

China’s relation with the United States at the best of times, however, remained uneasy. China has resented and continues to resent United States policy stances over Taiwan and the US military forward presence in the Western Pacific.  Lately, it has been carrying out a sustained propaganda against the United States and terming its policies in Asia Pacific as hegemonistic.

China perceives the United States as its number one  threat perception and has been airing this for some time now.  This has led to US-China relations now bordering on volatility and uncertainty and do we see the beginning of a Cold War? The suspicions, the rhetoric and the brinkmanship resorted to by China in actions against the United States are reminiscent of the opening stages of the first Cold War.

The latest incident involving the American EP3 surveillance aircraft by Chinese fighters over international waters, forcing this aircraft because of damage to land on China’s Hainan Island, detaining US personnel without diplomatic access for three days and the complete checkout of the US surveillance plane in terms of equipment and codes cannot be termed as an act friendly to United States.  It is symptomatic of the Chinese brinkmanship at display and portends that while China may not opt for an armed conflict with USA, it will however keep resorting to brinkmanship, keep confronting USA strategically, and wear down United States resolve to continue to be committed to the defence and security of the Asia Pacific in general and Taiwan in particular.

China’s Adversarial Role in Asia-Pacific Security

China right from its inception as a communist state in 1949 had adopted an adversarial role in Asia-Pacific security formulations.  Evidence in support of this assertion can be summarised as:

* China intervenes in the Korean War with massive military forces against USA.

* China’s military aid to forces opposing USA.

* China’s military intimidation of Taiwan in the 1950s.

* China’s opposition to US bilateral defence treaties with Japan and South Korea.

* China’s armed conflicts with ASEAN nations in the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Lately, China has turned the heat once again on USA and its allies on the following issues:

* The National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) programmes.

* Japan’s plans for upgradation of its defences and surveillance systems.

* Strengthening of the US-Japan Defence Guidelines.

Logically, China has no reasons to oppose the NMD as these are basically designed as anti-missile defence systems.  China uses the perverted argument that the existence of these systems would dilute her second-strike nuclear retaliatory capabilities.  Simply put, China opposes the dilution of her offensive capabilities.

As far as Japan’s defence plans are concerned they are in response to China’s massive military upgradation of both conventional and nuclear weapons.  China has made no secret that its increase in defence spending is to counter United States military predominance in the Asia Pacific.

The pattern sketched above would indicate that China wants to impose a security environment of its choice in the Asia Pacific.  It wants the exclusion of United States from Asia Pacific security set-up permitting unchallenged Chinese predominance.  To this end China keeps harping on US hegemonistic designs. [1]

China can be expected to keep up her adversarial stances in the Asia-Pacific, i.e., the perpetuation of a Cold War type tense and confrontationist security environment.

China-Russia Strategic nexus - Stimulant for the Second Cold War

Troubled by United States unipolar predominance, China in the latter half of the 1990s especially, found Russia a ready partner.  Russia with a cash-strapped economy, dismayed at the lack of expected economic aid from the West, troubled by United States military intervention in the Balkans and expansion of NATO eastwards was prompted to join up with China.  Russia was willing to sell advanced military hardware to China to bolster her economy.  In the last five years as part of what both describe as a ‘strategic partnership’ (stressed in every joint communique). [2]  Russia has supplied China with advanced military hardware to build-up Chinese force projection capabilities and the nucleus of a blue water navy.

Russia’s upgradation of China’s military might cannot but be viewed with concern by Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia and the United States.  It has already generated noticeable counter responses in Japan and Australia.

The China-Russia strategic partnership and the Russian-aided Chinese military upgradation have set the beginnings of the ‘Second Cold War’.

Asia Pacific Region - Theatre of the Second Cold War?

Russia was the instigator of the ‘First Cold War’, confined to Europe in terms of military confrontation but manifested in armed conflicts in the Asia-Pacific.  China, however, could now be the instigator of the ‘Second Cold War’ which is likely to dominate the Asia-Pacific for the next two or three decades.  China is involved in all the potential flash points concerning territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific.

Regrettably it is not only China’s perceptions of the external security environment in the Asia-Pacific which fuel its adversarial stances but its domestic factors too come into play here. As a recent article expresses: "finally a leadership whose political legitimacy is increasingly being questioned can be expected to cultivate further an aggressively nationalistic rhetoric of Chinese expansionism in the face of foreign encirclement.  This, rather than any specifically military calculation, explains the recent ratcheting up of rhetoric ostensibly directed to Taiwan but really intended for domestic consumption." [3] Other countries can miscalculate China’s rhetoric meant for domestic consumption. Herein lie additional seeds of China’s generation of the ‘Second Cold War’.

United States Policy Choices

The global centre of gravity, both strategically and economically has shifted to the Asia-Pacific.  The United States as a superpower, whether unipolar or otherwise has a clear stake in the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.  Not only does the American forward military presence provides an outer shield of defence for United States mainland security but the US economy is sizeably dependent on two-way trade with the Asia-Pacific.  The countries of this region extending from North-East Asia to South-East Asia believe that the US military presence has provided stability and security.

The challenge to Asia-Pacific stability and security is increasingly emerging from China. Unfortunately the two Clinton Administrations followed a policy of accommodation towards China.  China was thus encouraged to believe during this time, at the expense of traditional allies like Japan, that it had already "arrived" at the threshold of superpower status.  China was allowed to dictate the Asia-Pacific agenda, e.g., Clinton acceded to Chinese pressures not to visit Japan while on his state visit to China.  Clinton was also forced to look the other way on China’s misdemeanours in terms of nuclear and missile proliferation in South Asia and the Middle East.

Brinkmanship was the hall-mark of the ‘First Cold War’ and the ‘Second Cold War’ will be dominated by China’s persistence brinkmanship endangering Asia-Pacific security.  China’s waywardness of the Clinton Administration’s years has to be reined in and the United States has to make tough policy choices.  It has to send tough signals to China and lay down ‘red-lines’ which China cannot cross in terms of Asia-Pacific security.

In terms of policy choices, the United States has the following options :

* To go ahead with NMD and TMD programmes despite China’s objections.  China’s objections arise out of fear of dilution of China’s nuclear second strike capability.

*USA could accord priority to Japan in terms of being a ‘pivot’ of Asia Pacific Security.  Japan already shares a sizeable burden financially of US security deployments in Asia Pacific.  Japan holds the balance in the 21s century and is a primary strategic partner in the Asia Pacific but Japan may by itself may not take the initiative.

* United State’s security interests demand that it normalises and reinforces its relationship with Iran and Vietnam.

* United States could reduce its Balkan military commitments and even NATO military deployment and divert these military resources for Asia Pacific security.  European security should be left to the European Union. In the foreseeable future heartland security of Europe is not endangered, but the Asia Pacific security in relation to US vital interest is endangered.

The United States emerged victorious in the ‘First Cold War’.  In the bipolar structure of that period the main protagonist of the United States, i.e., the erstwhile USSR was forced into disintegration as it could no longer bear the economic costs of confrontation with the United States.  The defeat of the erstwhile USSR was also facilitated by the switch over of China in the United States as a quasi-strategic ally in the 1970s.  The Asia Pacific flank of USSR stood exposed.

China in generating the ingredients of a ‘Second Cold War’ may not have calculated the costs.  China’s current economic growth, courtesy United States, may only sustain China’s military and strategic build-up for some time.  Minus United States involvement in China’s economy, China’s economic growth could go into a down slide.  China, therefore is not in a viable position to sustain a ‘Second Cold War’ that it has sought to generate in the Asia Pacific.

The history of Sino-Russian relationship does not inspire confidence in the so called ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries.  Russia could baulk at the confrontation sought by China with the United States as part of its generation of the ‘Second Cold War’.

Perspective analysis of China’s adversarial role in Asia Pacific security vis-a-vis the United States and its generation of the ‘Second Cold War’ would indicate two tragic ironies:

* China has no ‘natural allies’ to confront the United States.  Further, the United States has a crippling hold on the Chinese economy [4]

* China’s pretensions to emerge as a superpower are tragic.  China despite all optimistic predictions cannot replace Russia as a superpower.  It is Russia which is in Eurasia, not China. [5]

Contemporaneous analysis of strategic factors would indicate that global factors are hardly ever likely to facilitate the emergence of China as a second pole in a bipolar world of the future. "Shortly before his untimely death, Gerald Segal posed the provocative question: ‘Does China matter?’ He contended that it did not, and urged the rest of the world to see China for what it is, a normal middle power." [6]

There is therefore no reason why United States should not win the Second Cold War too.  It should therefore pursue bold policy options in containment of China.

(Dr. Subhash Kapila holds a doctorate on Asia-Pacific strategic studies. He can be reached by e-mail at


1. Defence News(USA) dated October 30, 2000 commenting on the latest Chinese White Paper on Defence, the analysis brings out that Beijing is designing its military modernisation to counter US hegemony. The United states is reflected as an unwelcome regional bully.

Also see ‘Inside China Mainland’, Institute of Current China Studies, Taipei, Taiwan quoting speeches by Chi Haotian and PRC Chief of General Staff Fu Quanyou in June 1999. Chi Haotian states." We must now address America’s hegemonistic power politics and gunboat diplomacy with an adjustment of our own (strategic) plans." Gen. Fu declared "We must base ourselves in fighting for victory against American hegemonistic military intimidation."

2.  News from China , Vol. XII, No 38, Sep. 20, 2000 Page9. Xinhua report of Sep. 11, 2000 quotes Li Peng’s statement in Moscow that promoting a strategic relationship with Russia is China’s established policy and such a policy will not be altered, whatever happens in the world. Russian President Putin gave a reciprocal response.

3.  Michael Szonyi, ‘China :The Years Ahead’, International Journal Vol. IV No 3 Summer 2000, Canadian Institute of International Affairs. P479.

4.  Dr. Subhash Kapila, ‘Dangerous Peace: New Rivalary in World Politics" Review Article 3, Journal of the United Services Institution of India , Vol. CXXVIII, No 532 April-June 1998. The author questioned the rise of China to a bipolar superpower status with USA in the 21st century.

5.  Dr. Subhash Kapila , ‘Government and People in Russia’ Review Article No 2, Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXXIX no 538, October December 1999.

6.  See Note 3 above. Michael Szonyi. P480