Avoiding a New Cold War

Tuosheng Zhang
(Huazhi Institute for Global Governance, Nanjing University, China )

On top of failing to ease strained relations between China and the U.S., 
the global outbreak of COVID-19 has actually made things worse.As the U.S. 
presidential election draws near, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered 
a series of anti-China screeds, including a statement on the South China 
Sea, a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and a speech before 
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He seems determined to push China-U.S.
 relations into the abyss of a cold war.

Are the U.S. and China moving inevitably into a cold war? The answer, of 
course, is no. But we must not lose sight of the serious risk.

Against the background of severe deterioration in relations, three major 
factors could lead the two countries into a new cold war: first, decoupling; 
second, a confrontation of political systems and ideology; and third, a 
military conflict.

For quite some time, the hawks in the U.S. have been pushing for decoupling 
with China in the fields of economy, trade, science, technology, and people-to-
people exchanges. They want to steer the two into mutual economic and social 
isolation, the same as developed between the U.S. and the USSR.This, however,
 will also be hugely damaging to the U.S., and there is substantial opposition 
in the U.S. The Chinese strategy should be to persist in reform and opening-up,
 try its best to sustain all kinds of cooperation and exchanges with the 
U.S. and strive to gradually develop a benign kind of competition on the 
basis of international rules. That will be the best way to thwart the American 
hawks' decoupling attempts.

Over the past three years, competition and friction between China and the 
U.S. have rapidly expanded into various fields but stopped short of confrontation.
 Recently, the American hawks have gone all out to boil China-U.S. competition 
down to an ideological contest and have attempted to push it to zero-sum 
and confrontation. China will not be fooled. It should be China's unswerving 
policy to not export its social system or ideology nor engage in an ideological 
confrontation with the U.S. but to strive for the peaceful coexistence of 
the two social systems. This will play an important role in preventing a 
new cold war.

At present, the most likely risk or trigger is a military conflict. Over 
the past two years, military movements and frictions in the Taiwan Strait 
and South China Sea have risen sharply. If a crisis breaks out, it will 
be extremely difficult to manage and control. If a military conflict occurs, 
no matter how limited it might be, it will open the door to a protracted 
cold war.

The Taiwan question bears on China's core interests. In recent years, with 
the expansion of separatist elements in Taiwan, the central government has 
steadily strengthened its stance against Taiwan independence. It has enhanced 
its military posture against pro-independence forces by warning of dire 
consequences.However, the U.S. and China have sharply different views of 
the administration of Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen. Her party, the DPP, has 
an independence agenda. Moreover, the U.S. Congress adopted a number of 
Taiwan-related acts, seriously violating the one-China principle to which 
America had agreed and requiring the U.S. government to elevate its relations 
with Taiwan and strengthen its defense capability.At present, both countries 
have significantly increased their military activities in the Taiwan Strait, 
and the possibility of a military crisis or conflict due to miscalculation 
or accidental fire has risen palpably.But there is an even greater risk: 
If the pro-independence forces in Taiwan and foreign interlopers blatantly 
cross the red line set in China's anti-secession law, China will be forced 
to resort to non-peaceful means, including military force, to prevent a 
split. In such a situation, China and the U.S. could be plunged into a serious 
military conflict, or even all-out war.

Frictions in the South China Sea occur mainly over American military reconnaissance 
near Chinese shores, increased freedom of navigation operations in waters 
surrounding Chinese islands and reefs, large-scale joint military exercises 
with allies in the area and open involvement and interference in China's 
sovereignty disputes with its neighbors. In his recent statement on the 
South China Sea, Pompeo incited and intensified the maritime disputes between 
China and other countries in a blatant attempt to undermine China's negotiations 
with ASEAN countries on a code of conduct aimed at stability.Unlike the 
Taiwan Straits, the two sides' bottom lines in the South China Sea are not 
clear. But their military aircraft and warships meet frequently and game 
each other fiercely, so the risk of an accidental incident is obviously 

In the high-risk period ahead of the American presidential election, if 
China and the U.S. want to avoid a military crisis or conflict in the Taiwan 
Strait or the South China Sea, strengthening crisis management is the only 
feasible way.

First, China and the U.S. should reopen, as soon as possible, the communication 
channels between the two militaries and diplomatic services. In particular, 
the hotline between the respective defense agencies should be fully tapped 
to notify each other and communicate the presence of various risks that 
might lead to a military confrontation.Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary 
Mark Esper expressed his hope to visit China within this year to try and 
develop a crisis communication system. It was a positive signal. The two 
sides may wish to start with online communication and engage in consultations 
through the two embassies.

Second, the two sides must prioritize crisis prevention and avoidance. The 
maritime military security consultation mechanism, stalled because of the 
COVID-19 pandemic, should resume in the form of an online dialogue. The 
two sides should reaffirm their adherence to agreed codes of conduct for 
unplanned encounters at sea, including mutual notification of major military 
activities. The security of encounters at sea and in the air, including 
their annexes, should be included. They should also order their front-line 
officers and soldiers to act in accordance with those agreements.

Third, to prevent a crisis from escalating beyond control, the two sides 
should, in the event of a maritime emergency, immediately initiate and maintain 
on-site communication, have a high-level conversation through hotlines and 
dispatch special envoys for urgent consultations. Moreover, in managing 
a crisis, taking roughly equivalent military action, not escalation, should 
be the basic principle followed by both sides.

Fourth, after we move past the high-risk period preceding the U.S. presidential 
election, both sides should continue to make significant efforts to strengthen 
their security crisis management mechanisms.New efforts should be made to 
seek agreement by political and and military leaders on the basic principles 
of crisis management, additional confidence-building measures for military 
security, resumption of the joint chiefs of staff dialogue and the launch 
of a strategic stability dialogue focusing mainly on strategic nuclear relations 
and covering the militarization of space, cyber-security and crisis stability.
 In this way, crisis management will become an important part of the military 
security dialogue, with potential hotlines between the respective military 
theater commands.

In short, in a situation where competition has seriously increased, China 
and the U.S. must stop themselves from falling into a cold war as a result 
of all-around decoupling, ideological differences or a military conflict. 
At present, the most urgent task is to strengthen crisis management to prevent 
military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, crisis management was the only form of 
cooperation the two countries had available to avoid direct military conflict 
or war, especially a nuclear one. The current crisis management setup between 
China and the U.S. is very different. It represents a major effort by both 
countries ─ which are in a hybrid relationship of cooperation and increasing 
competition ─ to prevent a military conflict or war and avoid falling into 
the abyss of a cold war. Both countries and their militaries should take 
it seriously.

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