Origin of a New Cold War

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the IPCS Web Journal in my column the Strategist

Keywords: Containment, defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere, NATO Summit June 2021, growing speculation, the New Cold War.

George. F. Keenan, an American Foreign Service officer, in 1947 formulated the policy of “containment.” The continuity that this policy represented may be appreciated by its longevity; it remained at the foundation of the US strategy for fighting the Cold War (1947–1989) with the Soviet Union and the keystone of their foreign policy. “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies and protection of global industrial centres.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” He tailed off with the statement that “In the context of the present polarization of power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”

It is an awkward strategic irony that Keenan’s words should find an improbable echo 84 years later, in 2021, at summit declarations of the G7 and NATO. With the difference that it is China’s territorial ambition, cyber manipulation of global centres of industries, commerce and financial institutions, violation of human rights and disregard of established international norms that has become the object of antipathy. The NATO summit of June 2021 in its concluding declaration underscored that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.” China’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and its “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation” has piqued the international community. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders, earlier in their first summit also weighed in when they agreed to “meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas”.

 In summary China poses a ‘fourfold threat’ to the world; economic, ideological, geopolitically and an aggressive revisionism. China’s subjugation of Uighurs, its crackdown in Hong Kong, territorial excesses in the South and East China Sea and Ladakh region have drawn condemnation from the larger majority of the world community. Its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has prompted concerns about Beijing’s unscrupulous influence over some European and developing countries along the route. Seeking to create a counterweight of democratic values and nations in response to Beijing’s growing economic, military and revisionist activities the G7, NATO and the Quad emphasised that they will “continue to respond to the deteriorating security environment by enhancing deterrence and defence posture.”

Are we witnessing the genesis of another Cold War? The first Cold War was marked by actions taken to face down the Soviet Union and its Communist allies whenever and wherever they posed a perceived risk of gaining influence. In fact, Kennan advocated defending above all else the world’s major centres of industrial power against Soviet expansion. The Cold War was characterised by three factors:

  • The threat of nuclear war and the ensuing arms race
  • Ideological quest for world domination
  • Victory through influence and proxy wars

  Today, this would develop into vigorous opposition to any belligerent geopolitical action initiated by China. On the ground, China’s every move is designed more to further its own rapacious designs than for any altruistic purpose. A master plan has been articulated in their July 2019 white paper on national defence titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era.” The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater control over what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny (CCD).”  The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests. China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of the CCD” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction, what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “CCD for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning.

The Covid-19 virus, originating in Wuhan, set into motion a pandemic of a scale and scope whose economic impact on the world has beggared belief; the statistics speak for themselves, total deaths: 3.94 million, number of cases: 182.07 million. The strange fact is that China, where the virus originated, has been left largely untouched; its economy is showing growth of a nature that is implausible while the health of its population remains robust. The curtain of opacity that China has shrouded itself in as to origins of the virus has only reinforced the growing speculation that the virus was man-made and its release, deliberate.

The pandemic has provided a springboard for China to plunge into the act of creating the “New Era.” This ambitious scheme comes unglued as control over civil society diminishes and the Chinese Communist Party loses appreciation of human nature that craves for what it does not have which, in the case, is democratic freedoms. Democracy in China is restricted to the local level in small cohesive communities. Leadership is chosen and ordained at this level to rise to the top echelons of authority with neither popular support nor with their feet on the ground. The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The media is heavily censored and the Internet manipulated and periodically blocked. Leaders are unimpeded by the rule of law. More disquieting is the despotic trend that Xi Jinping has set in motion, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy. Despite economic growth being at the heart of political stability, incidents such as the crackdown on Jack Ma’s (the richest man in China, creator of Alibaba – China’s largest tech company – and The Ant Group, the largest Financial technology company in the world) assets, which have been stripped, shorn, chopped and distributed amongst incompetents, have been making international headlines. Reasons for this embargo are inexplicable since Ma’s enterprises had over the years contributed in good measure to China’s growth. Other leading entrepreneurs today are on thin ice.

Through the ages, human progression has been inspired by increasing empowerment of individuals and communities rather than a collective enslavement to abstract causes. Resentment of years of humiliation, as China’s leadership never fail to remind its people, can only lead to a society that is drawn to toxic authoritarianism. This has happened, and therefore our perplexity at civil society in China drawn to a ‘New Era’ must not come as a surprise. Uncomfortably, the era coincides with the start of a new cold war.

2 thoughts on “Origin of a New Cold War

  1. For China, “.. years of humiliation” have been very real, particularly at the hands of the Japanese, and the British. Enculturated resentment of such humiliationt “as China’s leadership never fail(s) to remind its people” does not have to, in and of itself, “lead to a society that is drawn to toxic authoritarianism”. Indeed, such resentment has been used quite effectively as mobilising movements against colonisation. Anyone heard of Gandhi? The social origins of authoritarianism that manifest in civilisational states — India not excluded — are not capable of being characterised in single dimensions.

    • Dear Siddhartha,
      I quite agree with you in as much as mobilsing resentment is concerned. The point I was making related to autocratic domination in political matters. As Tocqueville suggested in the face of authoritarian preponderancy “…people become frightened of independence. They want everything in the material realm to be firm and stable, and, unable to take recourse to (any) former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master”.

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