Playing it cool
Chinese leaders have finally realised that they are facing a new cold war. Over the past few months, Washington has put together a 'containment' package in Asia that includes a new military doctrine of air-sea battle, a new economic game changer in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the rotation of US marines in Australia. For years, mainstream Chinese analysts have refused to see this coming. Now, President Hu Jintao has publicly called on the navy to 'prepare for future military struggle'.
More interestingly, Vice-President and heir apparent Xi Jinping has begun to use different terminology. Instead of the vague language of 'building strategic trust', Xi acknowledges the perhaps irreconcilable differences between the two countries. The old official approach was to 'smooth over' differences, a delaying tactic; the new catchphrase is to 'control and manage' the differences.
This is no ordinary change of tone; it is a timely response to the dangerous policy pursued by the Americans. Gone are the days of strategic ambiguity on both sides, and the new leadership under Xi has set a realistic framework for future bilateral ties. The 'control and manage' approach may imply at least two things: first, the realisation that conflict with the US can no longer be avoided within the existing framework of engagement; second, the focus will shift towards maintaining a true strategic balance, however precarious, for the single purpose of avoiding a fully fledged confrontation.
There is little doubt that Washington is in the mood for a new cold war. Its China policy is on the cusp of an 'NSC-68 moment'. The 'National Security Council Report 68', issued shortly before the Korean war, was the key US government document that changed the direction of the cold war from Europe to Asia.
Americans love any concept that reflects a game-changing sentiment, such as the 'pivot towards Asia'. Will this development bode ill for today's most crucial bilateral relationship? At first glance, it certainly seems so. As neither side is using even veiled language to cover their clash in world views on regional and global governance, the stakes and solutions will become obvious. The US is building a military containment scheme in Asia, while the Chinese national interest will not be dictated by outsiders ganging up on China. The relationship could progressively worsen in a vicious cycle, as happened between the Soviet Union and the US during the early stages of the cold war.
But, ending strategic ambiguity has its merits, as the contours of Sino-US competition in the region will become more predictable. For example, Washington has a penchant for advertising new military weapons or doctrines to deter rivals. But this will lose its intended effect as it may automatically trigger an arms race on the Chinese side, and China could then justify its continued military modernisation.
In this way, Chinese military transparency - a key but until now unobtainable US objective - may be achieved by China's predictable countermeasures vis-a-vis the Pentagon. Beijing will have less need to avoid the publicity of its aircraft carriers and anti-ship weapons systems. In other words, China's strategic confidence will increase and its military policy will become more transparent.
Paradoxically, a US-initiated cold war could become a game-changing opportunity for China to swing world public opinion. First of all, the Chinese support mainstream opposition to hegemony in global politics. And as the magic formula of 'democracy equals prosperity' loses validity, the Chinese road to economic development will become more appealing. America's new cold war to hinder China's modernisation won't then garner much sympathy in the developing world, which will see it as a desperate move by the US to rescue its status as the world's 'only indispensible superpower'.
Moreover, there is a difference between the new and original cold wars. The Soviets never really engaged the US in an economic cold war. Today, 'the only indispensible superpower' is also a super-indebted power, and its biggest creditor happens to be its presumed chief strategic rival. Thus, the new cold war strategy is flawed. Is it logical and workable to encircle your own banker militarily? Or, as many Chinese begin to wonder, is it designed to start a military incident to find an excuse to default on the debt? If a cold war is primarily about who gains the upper hand in a moral debate, Washington may not win this time.
More importantly, America's 'pivot towards Asia' depends on its partners, the 'Asia-Pacific coalition of the willing'. This coalition is in fact fragile and consists of a group of states whose governments are facing major political troubles at home. From Washington to Tokyo, Manila to Canberra, it is their collective internal weakness that creates an ad hoc common identity that binds them to face an uncertain challenge from China.
China is unique in having a non-democratic system that remains an economic dynamo and enjoys a relatively strong state. It has its own problems, and a social implosion is possible. But that will be the result of internal factors, such as the income gap and official corruption. The Chinese system will not collapse under mere foreign pressure.
Ironically, even though China feels isolated in this absurd cold war, time is on its side. Thus, the Chinese leadership should continue to refrain from hasty action, such as a military clash over the South China Sea.
No one knows how long a US-led cold war in Asia is to last. But even the American political system can no longer deal with what Richard Hofstadter called the 'the moral shock of our nascent imperialism'. Xi Jinping is well known for his toughness with soft manners, and the 'control and manage' approach fits his character well. In the long run, this may prove more effective in engaging Washington. If the new cold war turns out to be short-lived, China's moral image will have been elevated a great deal.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva