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Prelude to a New Cold War

Author: Robert A. Manning, Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council
June 13, 1999
Washington Times


This is how wars start: Nations respond based on their perceptions of others’ intentions. For days after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, angry protester besieged the U.S. Embassy in Beijing-sanctioned outpourings of nationalist rage, and trashed official and corporate U.S. symbols in a dozen other Chinese cities. Nervous Chinese leaders met nearly round-the-clock.

Even after several rounds of apologies by U.S. Apologist-in-Chief Bill Clinton, Beijing’s initial refusals to believe the bombings were not unintentional began to harden weeks later into a drumbeat of official denunciations of "U.S. global hegemonism." After canceling talks on human rights and non-proliferation, and suspending WTO negotiations, Beijing began a major foreign and defense policy reassessment.

Yet all the while Washington has seemed a parallel universe, one of equal fury and indignation. The release of the declassified Cox Committee’s compilation of Chinese spying, theft of nuclear secrets and military technology, and illegal Chinese contributions to Mr. Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign fuel underlying fears of a burgeoning china threat.

No less than nine Senate committees are investigating a Pandora’s Box of scandals. Mirroring Beijing, a group of leading members of Congress sent a letter to the president urging a pause in relations with China.

Does this cycle of accusation and recrimination mean a new Cold War is inevitable? Two events, the embassy bombing, and the Cox report, have crystallized the underlying anxieties of two great powers with deeply discordant perceptions of each other and their respective intentions. China’s darkest fear is that the United States seeks to thwart its modernization and emergence as a major power. The U.S. fears a massive, authoritarian state will confront American interests and values.

Deepening suspicions on both sides have undone two U.S.-China summits in the past 20 months. The question now is whether this is yet another historical pendulum swing in a volatile relationship? At the moment, it appears a process more profound and not easily reversible is unfolding in both countries.

Since the waning days of the Cold War there has been a debate in China about whether the goal of U.S. "engagement" is really containment. Mr. Clinton’s rejection of a deal allowing China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) despite breathtaking concessions made during Zhu Rongji’s April visit strengthened anti-U.S. hardliners in the Communist Politburo and the Army.

Then, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade brought into sharp relief China’s worst paranoia, reflected in a recent People’s Daily front-page editorial: "The eastward expansion of NATO into Europe, the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the Asia-pacific region and the launching of the current aggression against Yugoslavia," the official Communist Party paper argued, "all constitute an important step in the United States strategy for world hegemony." This view is echoed in leading Chinese intellectual journals.

The precedent of NATO attacking a sovereign country over human rights concerns—without U.N. Security Council authority—raised fears that Taiwan or Tibet could follow. Moreover, NATO’s "Partnership for Peace" military program includes all the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia with whom the U.S. Central Command has begun jointly exercises. These oil-rich states border on largely Muslim Xinjiang, in Western China.

Suddenly, NATO, no longer a defensive alliance, reaches directly to China’s border. At the same time, the U.S. is building missile defense systems that could neutralize China’s modest nuclear arsenal. A Chinese missile build-up across the strait has fueled U.S. talk of selling missile defenses to Taipei, which in turn Beijing fears could spark pro-independence tendencies. Taiwan remains the most likely scenario for any direct U.S.-China confrontation.

This is, of course, a far cry from the "strategic partnership" President Clinton proclaimed the two were building. In fact, the image of an increasingly powerful single superpower, one whose advantages militarily, technologically and economically are growing, underscores China’s weakness and invokes historic fears of being victimized by the West.

Such fears come at a moment when China is feeling particularly weak and vulnerable. Since the Asian financial crisis, China’s economy has been faltering. Its next wave of reform—privatizing state-owned industry and reforming one of Asia’s worst financial systems is troubled. Two key ingredients in China’s growth, exports and foreign investment, have been declining since the end of 1997, as unemployment and social unrest have mounted.

Ironically, some in the United States who want to simply replace the Soviet software with China and embark on Cold War II, see China as ten feet tall.

Spying, of course, is one of the oldest professions, and not itself the issue. Much of the angst about the myriad scandals—spying, campaign finance, satellite and supercomputer exports—are as much about the defects in our political system as they are about China. This is reflected in the recommendations of the Cox report that focus on bolstering export controls and counterintelligence.

Even discounting some of the worst-case conclusions drawn in the Cox report, it appears that China has been able to obtain the technical know-how to: increase the accuracy of its missiles, leapfrog an entire generation in nuclear weapons to miniaturize nuclear warheads and deploy multiple warheads on ICBMs, gain knowledge of the most advanced submarine-tracking radar and laser-weapons technology. However, obtaining information and producing military technology are not the same. Thus far, very little of the purported acquisitions have surfaced in Beijing’s military inventory. It will likely be over the next decade or so that we will learn the extent of the damage.

Nonetheless, the spate of scandals magnify the image of an emerging power seeking to displace the dominance of the United States. Certainly, advocates of national missile defense are saying "I told you so." In coming weeks, there will be a barrage of anti-China legislation as the annual debate over granted China Normal Trade Status (NTM) heats up. Then there is the 2000 election campaign in which China is certain to be an issue.

Yet one need not embrace the illusionary Clinton rhetoric about a "strategic partnership" to think that some modus vivendi, albeit with much lower expectations, may be possible. China is not the Soviet Union. It is not ideologically expansionist, promoting revolution. Nor does it have the military capacity to project force in a sustained manner. Its non-proliferation policies have gradually improved.

At bottom, China has bet its future on the global economy, with modernization its top strategic goal. It needs U.S. markets, capital, management expertise, and technology.

For our part, China is an important emerging market, a nuclear weapons state, a permanent U.S. Security Council member, an Asian power of 1.3 billion people, a key environmental factor, and the second-largest consumer of energy.

In short, there is some common ground, though clearly areas where interests conflict. Yet China’s emergence will offset U.S. power to some degree and require some mutual accommodation.

However, in this poisonous atmosphere, it is difficult to see enlightened self-interest prevailing on either side. As Beijing prepares its next five-year plan, and Washington also rethinks its defense policies, the danger is that both nations will accelerate hedging strategies that begin to set in concrete a dynamic of adversarial relations. One hopes both exhaust all efforts to accommodate each other’s essential interests before that point is reached.

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