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The new Cold War: Sino-US rivalry heats up

By Michael Vatikiotis - posted Monday, 29 August 2011

The world has had a good long break from aggressive great power rivalry. It's twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the kind of jousting on the world stage that left bystanders fearing world war and nuclear holocaust.

Almost a generation has passed without the need for smaller nations to take sides on one side or another of the geo-political divide. We've grown used to a more or less benign state of unipolarity.

Now it seems we were dreaming. On a basketball court in Beijing recently, players from China's Bayi Rockets punched and kicked their opponents, a team from upscale Georgetown University in the US. As the American players walked off the court, racist catcalls and missiles were thrown at the visiting team's supporters.


US-China rivalry, long mulled over sedately in seminars and workshops, has become an ugly reality. Visit the comment pages on news sites in the US and expressions of fear and hatred towards "Commie" China are commonplace.

Equally, China's micro-blog sites and online chat rooms are filled with nationalist rhetoric aimed at Americans, who they accuse of wanting to see China contained, constrained and kept under control. "You want chaos for China, don't you?" One Chinese man shouted at US ambassador John Huntsman on a Beijing street – the incident caught on video.

These popular under-currents mirror an emerging reality. Recently, there has been a revival of the notion that Asia is about to overtake the United States and Europe as the world's economic powerhouse. There's nothing fanciful in that. China is now the world's second largest economy.

The fear is that whilst Western economies are mature and relatively complacent, the rise of Asian economic potency will be accompanied by aggressive even belligerent behaviour – just as the rise of the West from the 18th into the 20th century was characterized by long periods of war and aggression.

Logically, Asia's rise will be attended by competitive strategic urges, as it was when the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as nuclear powers after World War Two. Peace in the post-war western world was eventually secured and guaranteed through a variety of multilateral mechanisms that ensured the Cold War never became a hot war and steadily reduced the numbers of weapons and threat profiles of various powers. This achievement was relatively unsung. It was the product of relatively unglamorous diplomacy deploying mundane acronyms like START and SALT.

The problem in Asia is that the immediate Post Pacific War era was organised by departing colonial powers. The new neighbourhood that emerged was brashly nationalistic and resistant to multilateral meddling. Hence SEATO, the original idea for an Asian NATO, floundered. So have local efforts to create a nuclear free zone (SEANWFZ) and indeed any other attempt to design collective security architecture.


The key to lasting peace and security in Asia will be some emulation of the inter-state arrangements that were present at the end of the Cold War. China preaches exceptionalism in this regard, arguing that it maintains traditional arrangements whereby China eschewed aggressive expansionism and supported peace and harmony with its surroundings.

While there is no doubt that centuries of tributary relations between China and its barbarian rim did essentially result in peace and a balance of trade in favour of the rim, there's a new and more disturbing dynamic emerging that suggests that legacies are not immutable and that civilization, however ancient, does modernise and adapt.

When the US navy sailed its seventh fleet through the Taiwan Straits in the mid-1990s to head off a Chinese missile threat to Taiwan, Beijing had no choice but to back down. If this happened today there would likely be a stand off. As if to demonstrate this more active posture, in late July Chinese fighters chased a US spy-plane into Taiwanese airspace.

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About the Author

Michael Vatikiotis is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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All articles by Michael Vatikiotis

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