Are We Entering Into A Global Nuclear Cold War?

I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.

The Second Cold War is a term describing post Cold War era of political and military tensions between the western powers, ie the U.S. and either China or Russia.

The head of U.S. Strategic Command warned in piece published at the U.S. Naval Institute this month that there was a “real possibility” that the United States could end up in a nuclear conflict with China or Russia and that the strategic playbook needed to be updated to assume that that specific type of conflict was a “very real possibility.”

STRATCOM Commander Adm. Charles Richard warned that the U.S. Military needed to change its approach or else we are likely to “prepare for the conflict we prefer, instead of one we are likely to face.”

Richard wrote:

At the U.S. Strategic Command, we assess the probability of nuclear use is low, but not “impossible,” particularly in a crisis and as our nuclear-armed adversaries continue to build capability and exert themselves globally. Further, assessing risk is more than just assessing likelihood; it also involves accounting for outcomes. We cannot dismiss or ignore events that currently appear unlikely but, should they occur, would have catastrophic consequences.

While DoD’s focus has been on counterterrorism, Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have begun to aggressively challenge international norms and global peace using instruments of power and threats of force in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War—and in some cases, in ways not seen during the Cold War, such as cyberattacks and threats in space. Not surprisingly, they are even taking advantage of the global pandemic to advance their national agendas. These behaviors are destabilizing, and if left unchecked, increase the risk of great power crisis or conflict.

Richard warned that the strategic capabilities of Russia and China continue to accelerate and that seeing the progress that they are making is “sobering.”

“China continues to make technological leaps in capabilities in every domain,” Richard wrote. “Across its conventional weapons systems, it continues to invest significant resources in hypersonic and advanced missile systems, as well as to expand its space and counter-space capabilities.”

Richard specifically noted that in regard to China, the U.S. “must pay attention to PRC’s actions more than its stated policies.”

“While the PRC has maintained a ‘No First Use’ policy since the 1960s—contending it will never use a nuclear weapon first—its buildup of advanced capabilities should give us pause,” he wrote. “This policy could change in the blink of an eye. Beijing is pursuing capabilities and operating in a manner inconsistent with a minimum deterrent strategy, giving it a full range of options, including limited use and a first-strike capability.”

“There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state,” he continued. “Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility,’ and act to meet and deter that reality. We cannot approach nuclear deterrence the same way. It must be tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment we face.”

“We must adapt to today’s strategic environment by understanding our opponents’ threats and their decision calculus. We must also accept the gauntlet of great power competition with our nuclear-capable peers. It is through a holistic risk assessment process that we can better align national resources and military readiness to ensure strategic security,” he concluded. “In the end, it comes back to the threat. Until we come to a broad understanding of what the threat is and what to do about it, we risk suffering embarrassment—or perhaps worse—at the hands of our adversaries.”

In June 2005 Kaplan published a cover story, in the Atlantic, “How We Would Fight China.” he wrote that, “The American military contest with China … will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” he went on to explain that the wars of the future would be naval, with all of their abstract battle systems, even though dirty counterinsurgency fights were all the rage 14 years ago.

That future has arrived, and it is nothing less than a new cold war: The constant, interminable Chinese computer hacks of American warships’ maintenance records, Pentagon personnel records, and so forth constitute war by other means. This situation will last decades and will only get worse, whatever this or that trade deal is struck between smiling Chinese and American presidents in a photo-op that sends financial markets momentarily skyward. The new cold war is permanent because of a host of factors that generals and strategists understand but that many, especially those in the business and financial community who populate Davos, still prefer to deny. And because the U.S.-China relationship is the world’s most crucial—with many second- and third-order effects—a cold war between the two is becoming the negative organizing principle of geopolitics that markets will just have to price in.

This is because the differences between the United States and China are stark and fundamental. They can barely be managed by negotiations and can never really be assuaged.

The Chinese are committed to pushing U.S. naval and air forces away from the Western Pacific (the South and East China seas), whereas the U.S. military is determined to stay put. The Chinese commitment makes perfect sense from their point of view. They see the South China Sea the way American strategists saw the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the principal blue water extension of their continental land mass, control of which enables them to thrust their navy and maritime fleet out into the wider Pacific and the Indian Ocean, as well as soften up Taiwan. It is similar to the way dominance over the Caribbean enabled the United States to strategically control the Western Hemisphere and thus affect the balance of forces in the Eastern Hemisphere in two world wars and a cold war. For the United States, world power all began with the Caribbean, and for China, it all begins with the South China Sea.

But the Americans will not budge from the Western Pacific. The U.S. defense establishment, both uniformed and civilian, considers the United States a Pacific power for all time: Witness Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan to trade in 1853, America’s subjugation and occupation of the Philippines starting in 1899, the bloody Marine landings on a plethora of Pacific islands in World War II, the defeat and rebuilding of Japan following World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and, most important, Washington’s current treaty alliances stretching from Japan south to Australia. This is an emotional as well as a historical commitment: something I have personally experienced as an embed on U.S. military warships in the Western Pacific.

In fact, the U.S. Defense Department is much more energized by the China threat than by the Russia one. It considers China, with its nimble ability as a rising technological power—unencumbered by America’s own glacial bureaucratic oversight—to catch up and perhaps surpass the United States in 5G networks and digital battle systems. (Silicon Valley is simply never going to cooperate with the Pentagon nearly to the degree that China’s burgeoning high-tech sector cooperates with its government.) China is the pacing threat the U.S. military now measures itself against.

This American refusal to yield blue water territory to China is championed by liberal hawks who will likely staff any incoming Democratic administration’s Asia portfolios, to say nothing of the Republicans—both pro- and anti-President Donald Trump. As for the so-called restrainers and neo-isolationists, when you boil it right down, they are really about getting American ground troops out of the Middle East, something that may actually strengthen the U.S. position against China. And as for left-wing Democratic progressives, when it comes to a hard line on trade talks with China, they are not too far away from Trump’s own economic advisors. Remember that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was forced to publicly disown the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement because of pressure from her own party. The fact is, since President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, U.S. policy toward the Pacific has been notably consistent whatever party has held the White House, and the turn against China has likewise been a bipartisan affair—and thus unlikely to be dramatically affected by any impeachment or presidential election.

Regarding the trade talks themselves, what really riles both the Trumpsters and the Democrats (moderates and progressives alike) is the very way China does business: stealing intellectual property, acquiring sensitive technology through business buyouts, fusing public and private sectors so that their companies have an unfair advantage (at least by the mores of a global capitalistic trading system), currency manipulation, and so on. Trade talks, however successful, will never be able to change those fundamentals. China can adjust its business model only at the margins.

And because economic tensions with China will never significantly lessen, they will only inflame the military climate. When a Chinese vessel cut across the bow of an American destroyer, or China denied entry of a U.S. amphibious assault ship to Hong Kong—as happened last fall—this cannot be separated from the atmosphere of charged rhetoric over trade. With the waning of the liberal world order, a more normal historical era of geopolitical rivalry has commenced, and trade tensions are merely accompaniments to such rivalry. In order to understand what is going on, we have to stop artificially separating U.S.-China trade tensions and U.S.-China military tensions.

There is also the ideological aspect of this new cold war. For several decades, China’s breakneck development was seen positively in the United States, and the relatively enlightened authoritarianism of Deng Xiaoping and his successors was easily tolerated, especially by the American business community. But under Xi Jinping, China has evolved from a soft to a hard authoritarianism. Rather than a collegial group of uncharismatic technocrats constrained by retirement rules, there is now a president-for-life with a budding personality cult, overseeing thought control by digital means—including facial recognition and following the internet searches of its citizens. It is becoming rather creepy, and American leaders of both parties are increasingly repelled by it. This is also a regime that in recent years has been imprisoning up to a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in hard labor camps. The philosophical divide between the American and Chinese systems is becoming as great as the gap between American democracy and Soviet communism.

Keep in mind that technology encourages this conflict rather than alleviates it. Because the United States and China now inhabit the same digital ecosystem, wars of integration—where the borders are not thousands of miles, but one computer click away—are possible for the first time in history: China can intrude into U.S. business and military networks as the United States can intrude into theirs. The great Pacific Ocean is no longer the barrier that it once was. In a larger sense, it has been the very success of decades of capitalist and pseudo-capitalist economic development throughout the Pacific that has generated the wealth required to engage in such a high-end military-cum-cyber arms race. Truly, the new age of warfare would be impossible without the economic prosperity that has preceded it: The glass is half-empty precisely because it is half-full. This is a theme of Yale Professor Paul Bracken’s prescient 1999 book, Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age.

The good news is that all this may not lead to a bloody war. The bad news is that it well might. I believe the chances of a violent exchange are still nowhere near the 50 percent baseline, where warfare becomes probable rather than merely possible. Nevertheless, the chances have increased significantly. This has to do with more than merely the famous Thucydidean paradigm of fear, honor, and interest. It has to do with just how emotional the Chinese can get over an issue like Taiwan, for example, and how easy it is for air and naval incidents (and accidents) to spiral out of control. The more the countries fight over trade, and the closer Chinese and American warships get to each other in the South China Sea, over time the less control the two sides will actually have over events. As we all know, many wars have begun even though neither side saw it in its interest to start one. And a hot conflict in the South or East China Sea will affect the world financial system much more than the collapse of Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen.

What kept the Cold War from going hot was the fear of hydrogen bombs. That applies much less to this new cold war. The use of nuclear weapons and the era of testing them in the atmosphere keeps receding from memory, making policymakers on both sides less terrified of such weapons than their predecessors were in the 1950s and 1960s, especially since nuclear arsenals have become smaller in terms of both size and yield, as well as increasingly tactical. Moreover, in this new era of precision-guided weaponry and potentially massive cyberattacks, the scope of nonnuclear warfare has widened considerably. Great-power war is now thinkable in a way that it wasn’t during the first Cold War.

What we really have to fear is not a rising China but a declining one. A China whose economy is slowing, on the heels of the creation of a sizable middle class with a whole new category of needs and demands, is a China that may experience more social and political tensions in the following decade. A theme of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies, is that as states develop large middle classes, the greater the possibility is for political unrest. This will encourage China’s leadership to stoke nationalism even further as a means of social cohesion. While skeptics, particularly in the world business community, see the South and East China seas as constituting just a bunch of rocks jutting out into the water, the Chinese masses don’t see it that way. To them, almost like Taiwan, the South China Sea is sacred territory. And the only fact that prevents China from becoming even more aggressive in the East China Sea is the fear that Japan could defeat it in an open conflict—something that would so humiliate Beijing’s leadership that it could call into question the stability of the Communist Party itself. So China will wait a number of years until it surpasses Japan in naval and air power. Beijing’s rulers know how closely their strategy dovetails with the feelings of the Chinese masses. Indeed, this new cold war is more susceptible to irrational passions fueled by economic disruptions than the old Cold War.

In the second half of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union each had internal economies-of-scale (however different from each other), that were far better protected from the destabilizing forces of globalization than the American and Chinese economies are now. It is precisely the fusion of military, trade, economic, and ideological tensions, combined with the destabilization wrought by the digital age—with its collapse of physical distance—that has created an unvirtuous cycle for relations between the United States and China.

The geopolitical challenge of the first half of the 21st century is stark: how to prevent the U.S.-China cold war from going hot.

Preventing a hot war means intensified diplomacy not only from the State Department but also from the Pentagon—American generals talking and visiting with Chinese generals in order to create a network of relationships that are the equivalent of the old Cold War hotline. This diplomacy must avoid the temptation of reducing the American-Chinese relationship to one contentious theme, be it trade or the South China Sea. It can mean playing hard on trade but always keeping the public rhetoric cool and reasoned. Passion becomes the real enemy in this competition, because in the megaphone world of global social media, passion stirs the impulse to assert status, which has often been a principal source of wars. And it means most of all stealing a concept from the American diplomat George Kennan’s playbook on containment: Be vigilant, but be always willing to compromise on individual issues and in crises. Wait them out. Because, in a very different way than the old Soviet system, the Chinese system—the more authoritarian it gets—is over time more prone to crack up than America’s.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 is remembered as a key moment in the outbreak of the cold war. If future historians are ever looking for a speech that marked the beginning of a second cold war — this time between America and China — they may point to an address by Mike Pence delivered at Washington’s Hudson Institute in October 2018. “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the western Pacific . . . But they will fail,” the vice-president declared. “We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.” Pointing to China’s political system, Mr Pence argued: “A country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there.” For students of the first cold war between the US and the USSR, some of this sounded eerily and worryingly familiar. Once again, the US is facing off against a rival superpower. Once again, a military rivalry is taking shape — although this time, the main theatre is the western Pacific rather than central Europe. And once again, the conflict is being framed as one between the free world and a dictatorship. To add to the sense of symmetry, the People’s Republic of China, like the Soviet Union, is run by a Communist party. Even in the past few months, the deterioration in relations between the US and China has rapidly gathered pace, against the backdrop of a feverish election campaign in the US. Military tensions in the Pacific are rising. Taiwanese officials say the September exercises by the Chinese military within its air defense buffer zone were the most significant threat to its security since Beijing launched missiles into the seas around the island in 1996. The US has a commitment to help the country defend itself.

The US has moved aggressively to block Chinese technology firms, such as TikTok and Huawei — from expanding their international operations, or buying US-made computer chips. China and America are even indulging in tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists. And coronavirus, which originated in China, has devastated the global economy and led to more than 200,000 deaths in America. President Donald Trump, who is currently in hospital after testing positive for the virus, has made it clear that he holds the government of China directly responsible for the pandemic. In another confrontational speech that will probably be remembered by historians, secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned in July that five decades of engagement with China had been a failure.

“If we don’t act now, ultimately, the [Chinese Communist party] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to build,” he said, speaking at the Californian library of Richard Nixon, the president who reopened ties with Beijing during the cold war. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it.” New uncertainty For Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University and former senior Pentagon official, US-China relations are now “at their lowest point in 50 years”. There is even a fear that, as in the cold war, the world could increasingly divide into two blocs — one that looks to Washington and one that looks to Beijing. That may sound implausible in a world of globalised supply chains. But, especially in the tech sector, there are signs that this is already starting to happen. As the Huawei case illustrates, the US is now clearly leaning on its allies to cut tech ties with China — and, in some cases, such as in Britain and, to an extent, Germany, the pressure is working. China, however, is also building its own global network of influence through trade and its Belt and Road Initiative — which could involve loans and investment of up to $1tn in infrastructure development outside China.

Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who helped bring about the rapprochement between the US and China in the 1970s, said last year that Beijing and Washington were now in the “foothills of a cold war”.

If China’s growing technological prowess has captured US attention this year, its defense capabilities are also driving the growing anxiety. China’s rapid military build-up has altered the balance of power between Beijing and Washington. The Chinese navy now has more ships than the US navy — and they can all be concentrated in the western Pacific. China has also developed a formidable range of missile and satellite weaponry that could threaten American aircraft carriers and disrupt the US military’s communications. In a recent article, Michèle Flournoy, who is tipped as a possible US defense secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, worried that “dangerous new uncertainty about the US ability to check various Chinese moves . . . could invite risk-taking by Chinese leaders”, adding: “They could conclude that they should move on Taiwan sooner rather than later.”

Ms Flournoy’s recommendation is that America should strengthen its military capacity, so as to restore deterrence. The fact that a prominent Democrat is taking this position points to an important aspect of the new US-China rivalry: it will not disappear if Mr Trump loses the White House in the presidential election. There is no doubt that the current US president uses much more confrontational language with China (and indeed most countries) than any of his predecessors. Mr Trump’s single-minded focus on the US trade deficit with China and his protectionist policies are also distinctive. But Mr Trump may have helped to bring about a permanent shift in orthodox opinion in Washington. Daniel Yergin, an economic historian, notes that “while Democrats and Republicans hardly agree on anything today in Washington, one thing they do agree on is that China is a global competitor and that the two countries are in a technology race”.

A Biden approach to China would place more emphasis on American alliances than the Trump administration, and would probably make less use of tariffs. The Democrats would also look to work with China on climate change. But a Biden administration would not alter the basic premise of the Trump policy — which is that China is now an adversary.

In Beijing, this move towards a “cold war mentality” is decried — and is often attributed solely to America’s supposed refusal to accept a multipolar world. It probably is the case that there is a bipartisan determination in Washington to retain America’s status as “number one”. But the Chinese view skates over the extent to which Beijing itself has contributed to the emergence of a second cold war. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has become more assertive overseas and more authoritarian at home. Beijing’s construction of military bases across the South China Sea has been perceived in Washington as a direct challenge to American power in the Pacific. Constitutional changes that would allow Mr Xi to rule for life, the crackdown in Hong Kong and the mass imprisonment of the Uighur minority have all driven home the message that China is becoming more dictatorial — dashing any remaining hopes in Washington that economic modernization in China would lead to political liberalization.

An increasingly wealthy, illiberal and aggressive China is much easier to see as a dangerous rival that needs to be confronted. In public the Chinese leadership continues to decry the “zero-sum thinking” of the Americans. In private, however, the Xi leadership seems to regard the US as a dangerous rival, intent on overthrowing Communist party rule. As long ago as 2014, Wang Jisi, a well-connected Beijing academic, wrote that China’s leadership was preoccupied by “alleged US schemes to subvert the Chinese government”. If continuing rivalry between the US and China is inevitable, how do the two sides match up? It is generally acknowledged that the military gap between Washington and Beijing has narrowed considerably. But the US has a network of allies that China cannot replicate. There is no “Beijing Pact” to rival the Warsaw Pact that once bolstered the Soviet Union. On the contrary, other key powers in the Indo-Pacific region are treaty allies of the US, including Japan, South Korea and Australia. And India, while it is not a formal ally of the US, is likely to tilt towards Washington following the recent deadly confrontations between Indian and Chinese troops on the two nations’ disputed border.

However, if America stood aside in the event of a Chinese assault on Taiwan, then the US alliance system might not survive the shock. Conversely, if the rivalry between Beijing and Washington never escalates into military confrontation, then China has other assets it can deploy. It is the largest trading partner for more than 100 nations; compared with 57 nations for America. China is also a plausible rival to the US in a tech race. It is clear that some Chinese tech firms are vulnerable to cut-offs of key American components — in particular computer chips and semiconductors. On the other hand, China is ahead in certain technologies, such as mobile payments, and it is a formidable competitor in other areas such as artificial intelligence and medicine. A scientific rivalry between America and China is certainly reminiscent of the US-Soviet rivalry, which was driven by a space race.

Integrated rivals But while the parallels between the current US-China rivalry and the start of the cold war are striking, there are also some important differences. The most obvious is that the economies of the US and China are deeply integrated with each other. Trade between China and the US amounts to more than half a trillion dollars a year. China owns more than $1tn of US debt. Important American companies rely on making and selling their products in China. Manufacture of the Apple iPhone is built around a supply chain based in southern China. There are more Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in the PRC than in the US. This economic intertwining has also created a degree of social convergence. China may be run by a Communist party, but its major cities are throbbing with commercial life, private enterprise and western brands, and could never be mistaken for the grey uniformity of Soviet Russia. “Chinese society is more similar to American society than Soviet society ever was,” Yale University historian Odd Arne Westad noted in Foreign Affairs magazine. There are also strong scientific and educational ties between China and the US. Mr Xi’s daughter was educated at Harvard. Stalin’s daughter was not sent to Yale.

Given the levels of economic and social integration between the US and China, some scholars argue that the cold war may not be the best historical analogy — although some of the other potential comparisons are no less alarming. Margaret Macmillan, who has written a history of the origins of the first world war, thinks the “more important parallel is the UK and Germany before 1914”. This was a classic great power rivalry between an established and a rising power. At the time, some argued that the extent of economic integration between Germany and Britain made war both irrational and unlikely. But that did not prevent the two nations sliding into hostilities. Mr Westad, an expert both on China and the cold war, points out that, unlike the Soviet people in 1946, the Chinese have enjoyed 40 years of peace and prosperity. Therefore, “in a crisis, the Chinese are more likely to resemble the Germans in 1914 than the Russians after the second world war — excitable, rather than exhausted,” he says.

Another historical analogy, less discussed in the west but often heard in Tokyo, is the clash between Imperial Japan and the US that reached an endpoint in the second world war. As a senior Japanese diplomat sees it: “The Chinese are making the same mistake we made, which is to challenge American hegemony in the Pacific.” But at the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese economy was just 10 per cent the size of America’s. China, by contrast, now has an economy that is two-thirds the size of America’s — and larger when measured by purchasing power. There is one further aspect in which the comparison between modern China and the Japan of the 1930s is suggestive. Imperial Japan argued that it was liberating Asia from western imperialism (countries invaded by the Japanese, such as China and Korea, did not see it that way). There is a similar hint of a “clash of civilisations” in some Chinese nationalist discourse — in which the rise of China is portrayed as ending centuries of domination of the global order by white, western nations.

The Anglo-German rivalry and the US-Japanese confrontation culminated in war. But they broke out in an age before nuclear weapons. By contrast, the threat of nuclear annihilation defined the cold war. Perhaps as a result, US and Soviet forces never clashed directly during the cold war, although they often battled through proxies. Yan Xuetong, a prominent scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has argued that fear of nuclear conflict makes it unlikely that China and America will ever go to war — which would make the current US-Chinese confrontation more like the cold war, than the run-up to the two world wars.

Strength of systems But perhaps the most intriguing comparison is about how the cold war ended, rather than how it began. The contest was not settled on the battlefield or in space. In the end, it was determined by the relative resilience and success of the two societies — the US and the USSR. Ultimately, the Soviet system simply collapsed under the weight of its own internal problems. (Ironically, this was the fate that Communists had long predicted for the capitalist system). The USSR’s fate vindicated the strategy first sketched out by the American diplomat George Kennan, who in 1946 had advocated the patient containment of Soviet power while awaiting the system’s ultimate demise. Kennan also argued that the vitality of America’s own system would be crucial in any contest with the USSR. It is this last comparison which should disquiet the Americans and their allies most. The current presidential election threatens to provoke a crisis in the American democratic system of a sort that has not been seen since the 19th century. Even if the US achieves the peaceful transition of power that Mr Trump has failed to guarantee, the Trump era has revealed social and economic divisions that have turned America inwards and damaged the country’s international prestige.

The spectacle of the Trump-Biden contest has strengthened the sense in China that the US is in decline. Eric Li, a trustee of the China Institute at Shanghai’s Fudan University, inverts the cold war analogy — by casting the US as the USSR, in the grip of an “existential brawl between two near octogenarians”, referring to Mr Trump and Mr Biden. “Remember [former Soviet rulers] Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko?” By contrast, according to Mr Li, “China today is the opposite of what the USSR was decades ago. It is practical, ascendant and globally connected.” For all the confidence of pro-government intellectuals in China, like Mr Li, there is no doubt that Mr Xi’s China also has significant internal problems. As Mr Westad notes, it is “a de facto empire that tries to behave as if it were a nation-state” and the strains are showing from Hong Kong to Tibet to Xinjiang. But the PRC has also demonstrated an economic prowess that the USSR never possessed. If the US and China are indeed embarking on a new cold war to determine which country will dominate the 21st century, the vitality of their domestic systems may ultimately determine who prevails.

An economic juggernaut

Three decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China is now richer and more stable than its powerful communist predecessor ever was — giving it enormous global sway.

In fact, China’s economy is expected to overtake the US by most economic measures by 2030, according to Herve Lemahieu, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute Asian Power and Diplomacy Program.A lot of this success is down to a reinterpretation of traditional ideology. Since the death of founder Mao Zedong in 1976, the ruling Communist Party has slowly moved to embrace aspects of capitalism, in an ideological construct known locally as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”Rather than ending up an anachronism of an outdated communist system, China’s planned economy has been used to dramatically bolster state-owned enterprises, now some of the largest companies in the world.”The Soviet Union focused on their military and the economy was almost an afterthought. The Soviet economy was almost entirely focused on their military,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations with the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, who worked as a Soviet military expert for the US Navy during the Cold War.China has tried to avoid falling into a trap of rapid, unsustainable military growth. While it has still steadily grown and modernized its military, the country has managed to keep its spending far below the exorbitant levels of the Soviet Union, at least publicly. In 1989, just before the government collapsed, the Soviet Union was revealed to be spending about 8.4% of its national GDP on the military, or over 15% of its national budget. In comparison, despite regular jumps in China’s national defense budget, it still only sits at 1.9% of the country’s total GDP.As a result, China is far more economically powerful in 2019 than the Soviet Union ever was. “During the Cold War in the 1980s, the Soviet Union had a smaller economy than Japan,” Lemahieu said.

Military tensions

The Soviet Union was a bold, expansive military power, and by the 1980s it had tens of thousands of military personnel and weapons posted “in every major region of the world,” according to US government reports.By comparison, China has appeared to show little interest in expanding far outside Asia. While it has dramatically expanded its economic and diplomatic reach in recent years, the country’s military has opened just one international base — in Djibouti, on the northeastern tip of Africa.That isn’t to say that Washington and Beijing don’t engage in military brinksmanship. It’s just far more localized to Asia.Both sides have accused the other of provoking a military confrontation in the South China Sea through a rapid militarization of the region. When the US deployed a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea in 2017, relations between Seoul and Beijing went into a deep freeze.While the threat of nuclear war also hung over the world during the Cold War, the situation with China is markedly different.During its peak, the Soviet Union had an estimated 40,000 nuclear warheads, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, while the US still maintains at least 4,700. In comparison, China’s arsenal is relatively small — an estimated 280 nuclear warheads.But there have been early signs that tensions over nuclear issues could grow again.In early August, the US officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia which had limited the development of ground-based nuclear missiles. The US wanted Russia and China to join them in working out a new treaty — but Beijing said no.“If the US deploys missiles in this part of the world, at the doorstep of China, China will be forced to take countermeasures,” said Fu Cong, Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department, on August 6.

US allies divided

While the US could argue the Soviet Union was a clear threat to world security, the case against Beijing is far less simple. In fact, some countries are finding China’s offers of financial support with no political interference an attractive option. “China has played the card that the US tried to mold the world in their image, while (Beijing) are just wanting to trade. Your government and your country is your own sovereign question and we have no say,” Schuster said. “That’s very compelling. “Balancing political and economic considerations has already led to divisions between the US and its previously close Cold War allies. In 2018, for example, former CIA analyst Peter Mattis gave testimony at a US congressional committee which suggested New Zealand’s role in the well-established global Five Eyes alliance should be reviewed. Comprising the US, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the intelligence gathering network traces its origins to World War II and remains a powerful diplomatic bloc. However China is now the largest trading partner for two out of the five members — Australia and New Zealand — and a major part of the economy for the other three. In his 2018 testimony, Mattis said relations between the US and its partners had grown more complicated since the Cold War, when there were two very distinct global spheres — one communist, one capitalist.”(Now) everyone has some sort of connectivity. The US has an important role in Europe as a partner, China has an important role in Europe as a partner,” he told CNN. “Beijing is present in all these areas that the Soviet Union wasn’t. “The US has certainly been ramping up the rhetoric of late. Washington this year lobbied hard to stop countries from using technology from Chinese giant Huawei to build 5G networks over alleged security concerns. Huawei has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying that there is “no proof” the Chinese government has any influence over it.

Australia was the first to ban Huawei from its 5G network. New Zealand has enacted a partial ban, while the UK is still deliberating.US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even threatened to stop other US partners from receiving sensitive intelligence if they didn’t comply. “It makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” Pompeo said in February. Despite the partial ban, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Chinese state-run media CGTN in April that the company was still welcome in her country. “We already have Huawei products in New Zealand and Huawei already operates in New Zealand,” she said. Schuster, formerly of the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said such public divisions among Washington’s close allies didn’t bode well for any ambition to build a united global front against China. “If the US can’t convince the Five Eyes, the odds of successfully persuading any others not immediately and directly threatened by China will be quite small,” he added.

The new space race

When the first unmanned rover touched down on the far side of the moon in January 2019, neither Soviet nor US-made treads disturbed the lunar dust. They were Chinese.Fifty years after the US beat the Soviet Union to the moon, the space race is on again. Only this time it’s the US and China aiming to be the next country to successfully land a person on the moon. The new lunar race is symbolic of so much in the new state of relations between the two countries. China has caught up to the US quickly — when US astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, China’s space agency hadn’t even launched a satellite — and is now hoping to overtake it. But even in space, the relationship is a lot more complicated than the hyper-competitive attitude of the 1960s. In fact, NASA cooperated with China’s National Space Administration to monitor the Chang’e probe when it landed on the far side of the moon in January. Speaking to the state-run China Daily in January, former NASA chief Charles Bolden said he was hopeful US government restrictions on working with China would be lifted, allowing for more space cooperation. “We look at (the Chang’e probe landing) as an achievement for humanity,” he said.

Former CIA analyst Mattis, who at the time was a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told CNN that any mass move by the US government to confront China would require a marked shift from the status quo. “Waging the Cold War required 10 years of government reform, massive policy debates and led to tens of thousands of US citizens dead in places all over the world — hundreds of thousands, or millions, dead in places like North Vietnam and spread out around the world,” he said. And with memories of the true costs of the Cold War still burning, Mattis said it was understandable if US policymakers were reluctant to engage. “The scope of it is huge,” he said. “But what sort of costs are we actually prepared to take?”

As long as the pandemic rages, the world’s leaders are understandably preoccupied with the threat of disease. But there are other dangers to humanity that demand attention. One of the most frightening is nuclear war. Unfortunately, the risk of that happening keeps rising.

The headline numbers are misleading. Yes, the global stockpile of nuclear warheads decreased slightly last year, according to the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But that’s only because the U.S. and Russia, the two countries that still account for more than 90% of global nuclear stocks, dismantled some of their obsolescent warheads.

Meanwhile, all nine countries with nukes are modernizing their other warheads and delivery systems. In a test just last week, France successfully fired, from a submarine, a nuclear missile that can travel between continents at 20 times the speed of sound. Other countries, most notably China, are adding to their nuclear stashes as fast as they can.

Even more worryingly, states are reviewing their strategies for using these weapons. Gone is the amoral but logical stability of the Cold War, when two superpowers kept each other and the world in check with a credible threat of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD).

Russia, for instance, increasingly sees smaller “tactical” warheads as a possible way to compensate for weaknesses in its other military forces. It’s conceivable that a conflict starting with hybrid warfare — ranging from disinformation campaigns to soldiers in unmarked uniforms — could escalate to a conventional war and a limited nuclear strike, inviting a counter strike and so forth.

There’s also speculation that India could soften its policy, adopted in 1998, never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon. Such thought experiments are no small matter for a country with two hostile and nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China. Just this week, India and China clashed again over their disputed border in the Himalayas. What North Korea could get up to in a crisis that it itself provokes is anybody’s guess.        

Meanwhile, all efforts to limit or reduce nuclear weapons have ground to a halt. A treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that eliminated land-based missiles with short and intermediate ranges collapsed last year, after the U.S. accused Russia of cheating.

And the two old foes aren’t even close to extending their only remaining arms-control agreement, called New START, which expires in February. One reason for that failure was America’s insistence that the third and rising superpower should join the negotiations. But China, which sees itself as merely catching up with the two nuclear kingpins, balks at accepting any limits.

Progress has also stalled in updating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, exactly 50 years after it took effect. It sought to keep additional countries from making bombs by encouraging them to use fissile material (uranium or plutonium) only for civilian purposes such as generating electricity. But five countries have gone nuclear since it was signed. Worse, game theory suggests that it’s rational for more states to follow. Iran could be next.

The only international agreement to ban these evil weapons altogether, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed by the United Nations in 2017, has the same chance as a snowball in a fission event. No member of the nuclear club intends to ratify it, nor do many other countries.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, doubt is also creeping into the transatlantic alliance, undermining its credibility and thus the deterrence that’s so vital to preventing war. Germans, in particular, are aghast at their treatment by U.S. President Donald Trump, who this week chastised them as “delinquent” allies and confirmed that he will withdraw about one in four American troops from Germany.Opinion. Data. More Data.Get the most important Bloomberg Opinion pieces in one email.EmailSign UpBy submitting my information, I agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service and to receive offers and promotions from Bloomberg.

In May, several leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats, a party with a tradition of anti-Americanism, even suggested opting out of NATO’s policy of “nuclear sharing,” whereby some allies, such as Germany, forego building their own nukes but provide the airplanes to deliver U.S. bombs in a pinch. This policy is meant to make joint deterrence more credible. But to German lefties, distrust of Trump is enough reason to challenge its logic. Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly overruled them.

Between naivety in Germany, belligerence in Russia, ambition in China, inanity in Trumpist America and brinkmanship in North Korea, the outlook is grim. Egomaniacs or rogues could be tempted to test the boundaries in their foes’ deterrence plans, and human error could compound the folly.

What’s more, the climate in international relations isn’t exactly conducive to solutions. The world leaders who matter most are so busy with “trade wars” and “vaccine nationalism,” they can barely even imagine sitting around a table with people they loathe but should talk to, an activity known formerly as diplomacy.

But they must rise above themselves. If they can’t, the rest of us, from voters to the military brass, should force them. Only patient multilateralism, as unsexy as that polysyllabic Latin word may sound to alpha males, can save us in the long run. Otherwise, to use a Cold War metaphor, the nations of the world will find themselves standing in a room awash with gasoline, each counting who has how many matches, until one is lit.

Resources

dailywire.com, “Top U.S. Commander: We Must Assume ‘Very Real Possibility’ That We May Need To Use Nukes Against China, Russia,” By Ryan Saavedra;” en.wikipedia.org, ” Second Cold War,” By Wikipedia editors; foreignpolicy.com, ” A New Cold War Has Begun,” By Robert D. Kaplan; ft.com, “A new cold war: Trump, Xi and the escalating US-China confrontation,” By Gideon Rachman; cnn.com, “There’s talk of a new Cold War. But China is not the Soviet Union,” By Ben Westcott; bloomberg.com, “This Nuclear Arms Race Is Worse Than the Last One: With the stability of the Cold War gone, the risk of nuclear war keeps rising. Only old-fashioned multilateralism can save us in the long term,” By Andreas Kluth;

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