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How Cold War I (US-Soviet) Is Different From Cold War II (US-China) – Analysis


The United States has recently been talking seriously about starting a new Cold War with China. In Cold War with the former Soviet Union which mostly revolved ideological and security spheres, the two sides reached a strategic agreement to replace political threats with military ones. Thus, the former Cold War between the Kremlin and the White House began with an agreement, not a threat.

In the new Cold War; however, there is no such agreement between  US and China and due to Beijing‘s economic rise as well as the profound geopolitical changes that have taken place in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years the political and economic threats are turning into military ones.  

The United States has greatly increased its military presence in the region and Britain, France, and even Germany are sending warships to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Also, The United States, Britain, and Australia have publicly demonstrated nuclear deterrence against China through the AUKUS nuclear military alliance.

Japan, a strategic ally of the United States and the sixth most powerful military in the world, has entered the battle field after several years of political inactivity. Japan has revived the Quad alliance comprised of three other countries namely the United States, Austrailia, and India and has significantly increased its defense budget. New alliances are rapidly forming in East Asia promoting multilateral anti-Chinese aggressive policies in countries near and far from China, including India, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan.

China, in line with its military security strategies, not only has upgraded and extended its air and naval forces as well as its nuclear arsenal, but also has ignored Western allies’ military measures in the region and expanded its  air maneuvers to Taiwan’s airspace and loudly declared Taiwan part of its territory. The Chinese navy has also occupied the disputed islands in the China Sea one after another and turned them into its military bases. In any case, these turn of events have left the Western coalition no option other than nuclearization to save Taiwan.

These conditions indicate the imminent escalation of tensions and a fierce war that bears no resemblance to the East-West conflict during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. In the previous Cold War, the government institutions of the two sides had arms control and the possibility of exchanging information and communication. They even began Salt I and Salt II negotiations to resolve nuclear tensions. Even if the talks were to be stopped, at least various tribunes and a “red telephone” were available to control the military arrangements which could prevent accidental wars.

In the current situation, the mechanisms of contact and tension control, due to preemptive war strategies and the type of weapons and their complexity in land, air, sea and space, is not comparable to that of the former Cold War. China and the United States as both potential and actual opponents have not created the necessary institutions for systematic dialogue in order not to leak any valuable information or strategy.  

Cold War I between the United States and the Soviet Union has two basic ideological and economic differences with today’s US-China confrontations.

In the First Cold War, communism, socialism, and a Centralized government economy as opposed to a free social system, democracy, and Western capitalism were the two as an ideological fronts against each other. Socialism had social and economic attractions in the developing countries, and in many developed countries, especially in Europe in the 1960s, communism was promoted and developed ostensibly as an alternative to the growing disadvantages of the exploitative systems of capitalism.

But China today lacks ideology, and unlike Mao’s era, Maoism is not preached around the world and there are no political and social demonstrations for Maoism in the streets of European countries. In contrast, today’s Chinese intellectuals emphasize the need to defend Western values such as democracy, freedom and human rights against the authoritarian Chinese communist regime.

It can be said that China today is not an ideological soft power with its Confucian ideas. Instead, by creating an efficient and competent government and consolidating a government based on meritocracy, it seeks to compensate and create soft attraction and power for itself in the outside worlds. The fact is that China’s economic competence and determination have a special appeal and brailliance all over the world. In today’s world, countries turn to the efficiency of the Chinese when they are planning international projects and prefer the their quick and flawless implementation of plans to the Western pretentious countries, and this trend is progressing rapidly. Of course, the violence of the regime and its side effects in China can not be denied.

China’s economic relations with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the world are fundamentally different from those of the East with West during the Cold War I. China is on the track to become the world’s largest economic power, has extensive and close trade relations with all countries of the world. Therefore, predicting the outcome of a confrontation between two economic powers, both of which seek to dominate the global economy, modern technology  and artificial intelligence is difficult.

This was never the case with the former Soviet Union, and the Soviet economy was getting closer to collapse every year, and the results were predictable. Russia was only active in the international community as a major arms producer and energy supplier with a slowing economy.

Although there is disagreement in the West over the strategy for dealing with China, the firm consensus is that China must stop. Following Trump’s all-out trade war with China, the Western anti-China coalition has become more aggressive under the new President. The Americans and their allies in Europe and East Asia still believe that they can stop China, and at least slow down its economic rise by imposing sanctions and barriers to China’s access to state-of-the-art technology or at least slow it down and make it costly so that China is finally willing to make a deal with the West.

The fact is that China has no strategic allies in the world and relies heavily on its national resources and is accustomed to self-centeredness and aloofness. Relying on its vast and efficient manpower, China does not see the need to bear the costs and troubles of its allies, as the West and the former Soviet Union did. 

In a new campaign, if the United States fails to contain China, it will resort to a “systematicly polarized” world to monopolize the world and cut China off from world markets so that Beijing will eventually have to compromise.

Europe, still a major civilizational and economic power, has extensive trade and technological ties with China, so it can no longer act as a true US ally against China like it did during the Cold War. Europe does not have the capacity to withstand further global tensions. Europe, under increasing public pressure, sees forcing China to submit to constant military threats and political pressure implausible. 

It is difficult for Europe to choose between broad economic ties with China and the need for security cooperation with the United States. Europe is by no means considering a military solution to the China challenge. For Europeans, the freedom of international shipping in the South China Sea and Taiwan is important. The Europeans attempt to create an understanding image where, like the Cold War I with the Soviet Union, they acted like an instrument of arms control and prevention of military incidents across the seas and a “red telephone” between the two sides.

*Sarah Neumann is a professor of political science at teaches political science courses at Universities in Germany. 

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