Speculation that a full-blown cold war is developing between the United States and Beijing has dominated security circles over the past week, but some commentators say such talk is premature.
Shahriman Lockman, a Malaysian security analyst with the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, said the situation was far less severe than the decades-long cold war between Washington and the former Soviet Union.
That conflict involved “hot wars” – such as the Korean war, Vietnam war and the Cambodian civil war – as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis and a long campaign against communists in Malaysia, the researcher pointed out.
“That was the cold war. It was serious stuff. What we are seeing here today is what I would say is an uneasy peace,” Shahriman said. “It would be hysterical … if you see it as [if] we are entering the kind of intense security condition that we saw in the cold war.”
He added: “The United States does not believe that China can be contained, nor does it want to contain China.”
Still, the current scenario has caused “trepidation” in Southeast Asia, according to Joseph Liow, the dean of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The biggest fear in the region was that countries would be forced to take sides – which in turn would tear apart the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Liow said: “As the saying goes, if we don’t hang together, we will hang individually.”
Tang Siew Mun, from the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said all eyes would be on US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to the Lion City next month to meet Asean leaders. There are expectations that Pence will flesh out Washington’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy – part of its vision to ramp up engagement in the region as China consolidates its economic and strategic links with its neighbours.
The panellists’ comments came amid comments from US President Donald Trump that are likely to fuel speculation that America’s relationship with China is on a downward spiral.
Speaking to reporters on board Air Force One on Wednesday, he criticised his predecessor Barack Obama for an “impotent” policy in the dispute over the South China Sea, almost all of which is claimed by Beijing as its territory.
The dispute has been thrust to the forefront of security concerns in the region after a near-miss collision between an American and a Chinese warship.
The incident just off Given and Johnson reefs – part of the Spratly Islands chain claimed by China – saw the Chinese navy vessel Lanzhou force the USS Decatur to take evasive action to avoid a collision.
The Chinese warship came within 40 metres of the American vessel to ward it off what Beijing claims is its sovereign territory, while the US warship was conducting what the Pentagon terms a “freedom of navigation” operation.