Next Cold War

13 May 2005

Planning the Next Cold War

By Gwynne Dyer

The cover of the May “Atlantic Monthly” has a angry-looking Chinese sailor glowering out at the reader in menacing black-and-white, next to a headline blaring: “How We Would Fight China: The Next Cold War.” Yet “Atlantic Monthly” is one of the more respectable American monthly magazines, heavy on intellectual pretension and not generally seen as part of the lunatic fringe. If this is what passes for rational discourse among the American foreign policy establishment — and there have been many others like it in “serious” journals and papers over the past year or so — then God help us all.

The author of the lead article in question is Robert D. Kaplan, a minor player in the neo-conservative fraternity. In measured, almost academic tones, he discusses the strategy of the coming military confrontation between the United States and China as if it were inevitable.

A sample: “The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific — and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a US Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Chinese mainland. It’s not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe, but, rather, among Pacific atolls that were last in the news when Marines stormed them in World War II.” So explain to us, Mr Kaplan: how is it that, sixty years after World War II, the US Navy and Air Force are unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland?

He does not, of course. He takes it as read that the natural dividing line between the navies of the United States and China, two countries separated by 6,000 miles of ocean, lies about 10 miles off the Chinese coast. He also takes it as read that the growing power of China must be “contained,” as NATO contained Soviet power during the old Cold War. And in these assumptions, he is entirely representative of the people who run US foreign policy these days.

Never mind that there is no evidence whatever that China is a territorially expansionist power (with the possible exception of Taiwan), whereas the armies of the old Soviet Union occupied and subjugated all the countries of Eastern Europe. Never mind that the Soviet Communists still believed in world revolution, or at least felt obliged to support Marxist revolutions elsewhere, whereas the Chinese regime has been emptied of all ideology and pursues pure capitalist policies.

Never mind that the men ruling China are so uncertain of their grip on power that they would not dream of risking military clashes that would interrupt trade and kill the economic growth that keeps the masses quiet. In Kaplan’s view, any country that grows strong enough to challenge America’s status as the sole superpower is automatically an enemy to America, and must be contained: “Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive — and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception.”

This stuff is so shallow that it would lose a student marks in a high school history essay. What about America’s own emergence as a great power, or Russia’s, for that matter? It is just as often the case that a paramount power that is losing ground economically and fears demotion in the great-power pecking order will gamble everything on a resort to war, like Austria-Hungary in 1914. Or, perhaps, the United States now.

Few ordinary Americans would knowingly support the remilitarisation of international affairs and the launch of a second Cold War merely to preserve America’s position as the sole military superpower on the planet, but they will never be asked the question in those terms. Instead, they will be warned of emerging “threats” by people like Robert Kaplan, and told that China must be “deterred.” They will not be encouraged to ask: deterred from doing what?

Kaplan is not some fringe loony. He is what passes for a house intellectual among the neo-conservatives who currently dominate American defence and foreign policy, and his ideas are fully shared by them. He recounts with approval how the United States has already “formed a Pacific military alliance of sorts” through bilateral security agreements with “such places as Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.” Given the older US alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, China is already half-encircled.

Now the emphasis in Washington is on drawing India into an anti-Chinese alliance, too: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Delhi recently bearing bribes in the form of access to next-generation American military technology, and President Bush himself is due there later this year. Fortunately, the Indians seem unconvinced of the need for a confrontation with China.

Kaplan, like most of the people he hangs out with, lives in a fantasy world that runs on the rules of the 18th- and 19th-century great-power game. They understand very little about the realities of the 21st-century world beyond the US borders: Kaplan, for example, talks with perfect seriousness about “an ever expanding European Union (that) becomes a less-than-democratic superstate run in imperious regulatory style by Brussels-based functionaries.” But these people are in charge of US policy now, and there is a significant risk that their fixation on a new Cold War with China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Never mind…policies”; and “Now…China”)