The next cold war?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am

The cover of this month's Atlantic Monthly has a Chinese sailor glowering at the reader next to a headline which reads, 'How we would fight China: the next cold war'. Yet, the magazine is one of America's more respectable publications, not generally seen as part of the lunatic fringe. If this is what passes for rational discourse among the American foreign-policy establishment - and there have been many others like it in 'serious' journals and newspapers over the past year or so - then God help us.

The author of the article is Robert Kaplan, a minor player in the neoconservative fraternity. In measured, almost academic tones, he discusses the strategy of the coming military confrontation between the US and China as if it were inevitable.

'The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific - and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a US navy and air force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Chinese mainland,' he writes. 'It's not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long cold war, with a centre of gravity not in the heart of Europe, but, rather, among Pacific atolls that were last in the news when marines stormed them in the [second world war].' So explain to us, Mr Kaplan, how is it that, 60 years after the war, the US navy and air force are unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland? He does not, of course. He takes it as read that the natural dividing line between the two navies - of countries separated by 9,600km of ocean - lies about 16km off the Chinese coast. He also takes it as read that the growing power of China must be 'contained', as Nato contained Soviet power during the old cold war. And, in these assumptions, he is entirely representative of the people who run US foreign policy these days.

Never mind that the men ruling China are so uncertain of their grip on power that they would not dream of risking military clashes that would interrupt trade and kill the economic growth that keeps the masses quiet. In Mr Kaplan's view, any country that grows strong enough to challenge America's status as the sole superpower is automatically an enemy, and must be contained. 'Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive - and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil,' he writes. 'China will be no exception.'

What about America's own emergence as a great power, or Russia's, for that matter? It is just as often the case that a paramount power that is losing ground economically and fears demotion will gamble everything on a war, like the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1914. Or, perhaps, the US now.

Few ordinary Americans would knowingly support the remilitarisation of international affairs and the launch of a second cold war merely to preserve America's position as the sole military superpower, but they will never be asked the question in those terms. Instead, they will be warned, by people like Mr Kaplan, of emerging 'threats' and told that China must be 'deterred'. They will not be encouraged to ask: deterred from doing what?

Mr Kaplan is not some fringe lunatic. He is what passes for an intellectual among the neoconservatives who currently dominate American defence and foreign policy, and his ideas are fully shared by them.

But, like most of the people he hangs out with, Mr Kaplan lives in a fantasy world that runs on the rules of the 18th and 19th century great-power game. They understand very little about the realities of the 21st century world beyond the US borders. Mr Kaplan, for example, talks with perfect seriousness about 'an ever-expanding European Union [that] becomes a less-than-democratic superstate run in imperious regulatory style by Brussels-based functionaries'.

But these people are in charge of US policy now, and there is a significant risk that their fixation on a new cold war with China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist



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