Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  09 November, 2021

Are We Heading for a Cold War with China?

Image: Pachara Kongtanee/Shutterstock

In recent months, we have often heard that the return of the Cold War is imminent, this time with China. How great is this danger? Some developments point at a dangerous confrontation; others are completely different from the times of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies.

Looking at the geopolitical actions in the Indo-Pacific region, it’s realistic to fear a new Cold War or even existential military conflicts. China's air force violates Taiwan's airspace with provocative flights and proclaims its intention to integrate the island into the People's Republic. In the South China Sea, the Chinese Navy occupies territorially disputed islands and expands them into military bases. Military spending is rising rapidly, and all the major powers are modernising their weapons, including their nuclear arsenals. Australia is being sanctioned by China because the Australian government dared to criticise China's non-transparent policy of clarifying the Corona virus origin. The US opposes this and is increasing its military presence in the region. Britain, France and even Germany send warships to fly the flag in the Indo-Pacific. The US, UK and Australia form a military alliance with AUKUS that is clearly directed against China. The US is campaigning in Japan, South Korea and India for a common anti-China policy. Many signs signal the emergence of an imminent escalation and a military antagonism similar to that of the East-West conflict.

It is particularly problematic that no functioning arms control forum exists in which the hostile governments could at least regularly communicate. This had been the case during the Cold War from the late 1960s with nuclear weapons and from 1973 with conventional armaments. However, at that time these negotiations were extremely slow, with tricks that trivialized each government’s own armament efforts and exaggerated those of the enemy. There were, at least, various forums and the so-called Red Telephone or hot line to bring the arms race under control or to prevent wars starting by mistake. In fact, in the 1990s, nuclear weapons, missiles and conventional armaments were successfully and significantly reduced. Such forums are now also needed to stop the unbridled arms race on sea, in air and space.

The East-West conflict and today's competition and confrontation with China differ in two central areas: in the ideological conflict and in the economic interdependencies.

The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies has always been rightly described as a systemic conflict: communism, socialism and a planned economy versus a liberal, democratic, capitalist system. This dispute, which was decided as a result of the imploding Soviet Union, was for decades not only a competition for client states in the then so-called Third World – it was also an ideological fight. Socialism resonated in Western countries and seemed attractive as an alternative to capitalism. Even today, governments and intellectuals emphasise the need to defend Western values such as democracy, freedom and human rights against China’s Communist Party authoritarian system. But this Chinese system, which is applied very consistently in China, only attracts the interest of dictators. Demonstrations and applause for this Chinese social system, unlike the teachings of Mao Tse-tung, do not take place in Western countries today. Today's Chinese system has, at best, a certain appeal because of its economic effectiveness. Some people who are desperate about the planning periods of major projects in the West long for Chinese efficiency. But in the end, when the collateral damage is taken into account, such as the brutal relocation of entire districts to build a high-speed railway line, the Chinese economic efficiency gets considerable scratches.

The economic relations between China and the USA, the EU and other democratic countries differ significantly from the relations between East and West during the Cold War. China is on its way to becoming the dominant economic power on the globe. That was never the case with the Soviet Union. Trade relations between China and the rest of the world are very intense today. The Soviet Union was always only an energy supplier, albeit an important one. For the question of a possible new Cold War, this is both good and bad news. As early as 1977, the American political scientists, Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, emphasised the importance of interdependence for power relations in their work Power and Interdependence. Put simply, their argument meant that countries that are closely intertwined economically tend to cooperate with each other rather than settling conflicts militarily. The close economic ties with China, however, are a double-edged sword. At best, interdependence is an insurance against military adventures, because both sides are likely to suffer. But close economic interdependence can also mean dependency and vulnerability, as we have just experienced painfully due to the pandemic.

The US out-raced the Soviet Union in this dangerous arms race. Due to the economically desolate situation, the Eastern Alliance was not in a position to further accelerate the arms race. Such a collapse is not to be expected with China. On the contrary, China continues to expand its economic power and can easily afford to increase its military spending for the foreseeable future.

So how to deal with China? There is disagreement in the West about this. In the US, President Donald Trump initiated a sharp confrontation with China, not only rhetorically, but also economically, by imposing sanctions on China and through increased military efforts. President Joe Biden may be more conciliatory in style, but he, too, is taking a confrontational line on China. He no longer sees China solely as an uncomfortable competitor, but as an enemy, and he rallies for a unified Western strategy. The European Union is pursuing a more flexible, as the EU Commission says, "pragmatic" course. China is simultaneously referred to as a cooperation partner (for example, on climate change), as a competitor with whom economic conditions must be negotiated (for example, in technology development), but also as a systemic rival that propagates a different model of society (for example, in respect of human rights), against which it is important to show a clear edge.

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.