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US-China confrontations: Is a new Cold War likely?

By Sudhanshu Tripathi - posted Thursday, 9 August 2012


Although China and the United States have never been close allies, the recent activities of America in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea and China’s overall progress, all appear tending towards the risk of an eruption of a new Cold War. America’s policy shift away from Europe and the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific has made China cautious and uneasy. After a decade or more of influencing China’s neighbours, the United States is now seeking an opportunity to develop allies in the region. This will pave the way for renewed tensions.

With China opening a new front in its South China Sea dispute, claiming offshore natural oil and gas blocks within the internationally-recognised exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of both Vietnam and  Phillppines, the on-going acrimony between America and China have assumed a new height.

China has blamed the U.S. of “selective blindness”- which has stressed its national interests in ensuring freedom of navigation in the strategically important waters and for stirring trouble in the region by giving up its position of non-intervention in disputes surrounding the South China Sea. Countries like Vietnam have recently sought closer defence cooperation with America, citing the same concerns of aggressive Chinese postures.

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China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang’s recently asked: “Why does the U.S. turn a blind eye to the facts that certain countries opened a number of oil and gas blocks, and issued domestic laws illegally appropriating Chinese islands and waters?” This is likely a reference to recent moves by Vietnam, which have angered China, to offer oil blocks for exploration to foreign companies, including India’s Oil and Natural GasCorp.

China, in recent months, has had run-ins with both the Phillppines and Vitenam, which, along with at least eight other countries, hold competing claims over the disputed China Sea and its islands. Already, the Chinese assertiveness on the world stage acts as a counter-balance to American overtures to several Asian-Pacific states: Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. American policy towards Taiwan and Japan has always made China uncomfortable, not to mention the U.S. military alliance with South Korea lasting for over fifty years. 

Since President Barack Obama visited the East Asia Summit in Bali in November 2011, and later concluded a security arrangement with Australia, the U.S. has cemented its relationship with several Asian-Pacific states. Elaborating on the U.S. defence strategy for the region, Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta outlined the future American roadmap: “America is a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing the new defence strategy. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region (IOC) and South Asia. Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy.”

Rising Chinese assertiveness

Increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea at this crucial juncture appears to be part of a strategy to counter mounting U.S. naval hedging in the Asia-Pacific region because China’s move to upgrade the administrative level of Sansha city, on Woody Islands in the disputed Paracels, and establishing a new military garrison there look contrary to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences, thereby aggravating further the prevailing tensions in the region.

The rising differences between them were also seen on the side lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2012, when the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who met China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said without directly naming China, “worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and governmental vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen”, in a likely reference to the recent stand-off between vessels from China and the Philippines, a traditional ally of the United States.

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According to U.S. officials, Mr. Yang expressed “a careful indication” of China’s desire to participate in a dialogue to defuse any tension in the disputed South China Sea. Yang said that both nations “should put in place a sound pattern of interaction in the Asia-Pacific that features win-win cooperation” and expressed hope that the U.S: “will respect the interests and concerns of China and other countries in the region”. At the same time, underscoring a desire to downplay any strains with China, Clinton said that “the United States and China not only can, but will work together in Asia.”

Both China and the U.S. released statements pledging “to enhance and initiate collaborative efforts in the region” in areas ranging from climate change to possible energy exploration. Although both the U.S. and China appear to be trying to play down strains following the Phnom Penh talks, China’s irritation with Clinton’s comments made during her latest Asia visit, both on the South China Sea and on democracy and human rights, was apparent in two commentaries published in the Party-run People’s Daily. Attacking Clinton for comments she made in Mongolia which called on Asian countries to embrace democracy, an editorial argued that Asian countries “can solve their own problems and can find a path different from the West to suit their national characteristics.”

Aspiring global dominance

Mistrust between China and the U.S - and competition for global dominance - even though China still has not come out of the enigma of “middle kingdom complex”, has U.S policymakers concerned about China’s amazing economic and technological progress and also its state of art military modernisation and advancement. The successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics has also added another feather into its cap. Withthe resurgence of Asia and due to gradual decline of the U.S. and the fall of Western Europe, a new world order appears to be emerging, in which rising imperialistic assertions accompanied by awesome military power of China is a cause of worry not only to the U.S. but also to the whole world. China has emerged as the rising economic power, surpassing Germany and Japan and stands next to the U.S. in its economic stature. It is also nourishing the dream of becoming a dominant super power by replacing the U.S. in order to become the next hegemon in succession to the U.K. in the recent past.

These developments have significantly improved China’s economic and military clout as a dominant player and also a prominent decision maker into global affairs which may ultimately replace America from its position of global supremacy. Perhaps, anew world order appears to be emerging in which rising imperialistic assertiveness accompanied by the awesome military power of China is a concern not only for the U.S but also for Russia, Japan and America’s traditional allies, the Europeans.

China’s meteoric rise has led to the U.S. seeking ways to undermine Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in regards to the South China dispute. Thus,there appears a likely emergence of a second pole of global power after the erstwhile USSR, and a consequent new Cold War between them, particularly because the 21st century is being widely acknowledged as that of Asia.                 

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About the Author

Dr Sudhanshu Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at MDPG College, Pratapgarh, India.

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