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Cold War II

Sino American Relations Turn Icy

By Brendan Wilson

On October 22, 1962, President John F Kennedy informed a stunned American public that the USSR had placed nuclear weapons in Communist Cuba. If launched, any eastern American city would be reduced to ashes within minutes. Twenty-one years earlier, the attack on Pearl Harbor taught the United States that geographic isolation did not protect it from the hostile actions of distant enemies. Hundreds of ballistic missiles parked 90 miles off Florida’s coast served as a stark reminder to anyone that had forgotten that terrible lesson.

The Cuban Missile Crisis marked the climax of the Cold War, a political and ideological standoff between the US and the Soviet Union from the close of WWII to 1991. There are patterns that existed during this conflict that are beginning to appear in the worsening Chinese-American relationship. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping smile for photos at joint summits, but tensions below the surface simmer, threatening to tear at the tightly woven fabric that has kept the world out of a disastrous war for decades. Just as before, two incompatible systems, one rooted in democracy and liberal ideals, the other in authoritarianism and state censorship, dominate global affairs, forcing allies and neighbors to choose sides. Considering what is at stake, it is worth examining the parallels between the first conflict and the one that emerges now.

The postwar Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, an uneducated, paranoid peasant protégé of Lenin that rose to power after the death of his mentor in 1924. Under Stalin, the chief aim of the Soviet state shifted from the protection and security of the people to the protection and security of Joseph Stalin. Driven by legendary paranoia, he “purged” 700,000 political opponents, forcibly relocated two million Jews and peasants, and enacted disastrous agricultural policies that led to the starvation of five million Ukrainians. Stalin was threatened by America's nuclear capability and remained miffed about the red army suffering the bulk of the allied wartime casualties. Through effective espionage against the US, Stalin was able to close the nuclear gap by stealing plans for his own atomic weapon in 1949.

Threatened by the swift rise of the Soviet Union and motivated to avoid another devastating war, the US championed the formation of the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund with the aim of creating a safer, more secure world order through collective security and economic liberalization. Western democracies also signed onto the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), ensuring the mutual protection of members against aggressive USSR activities. Finally, understanding that a Europe decimated by war would descend into the sort of poverty, desperation, and despair that drives a populace willingly into the open arms of communism, the US rolled out the Marshal Plan, investing $12 billion into the war-ravaged economies of Europe.

Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin in 1953, quickly disappointing those hoping for a more dignified, level-headed leader. Khrushchev, known for threatening to “let the missiles fly” and for challenging the US to a nuclear “shooting match,” oversaw some of the hottest moments of the Cold War. Unfortunately for Nikita, the Marshall Plan was effective at rebuilding prosperous, liberal democracies that were magnets for the most productive members of repressive Soviet societies. To stem the brain drain that resulted, Khrushchev was forced to begin construction on a wall that would keep its citizens in. The Berlin Wall was a PR disaster that would, in part, lead to Khrushchev’s ouster in 1963. Two further decades of military buildup and proxy wars would continue until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and a broke, corrupt, rotted-out Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

After the fall, the United States reigned as the globe’s sole superpower. Once more, though, a bi-polar world order emerges, this time with China as the counterbalance in the East. Firstly, the US has taken issue with the way China does business, calling foul on its currency manipulation and rampant intellectual property theft. The Trump administration has sought to curtail the influence of Chinese tech giants like ZTE and Huawei, even threatening to cease intelligence sharing with allies that adopt Huawei’s 5G infrastructure. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused the company of being a “Trojan Horse of Chinese Intelligence,” asserting that Chinese technology deployed abroad would effectively extend the all-seeing eye of the communist Big Brother. This behavior is reminiscent of the espionage that allowed Stalin to close the nuclear gap in the years following WWII.

Second, China’s human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province could have been dreamt up by Stalin himself. It’s easy to draw parallels between the forced “enrollment” of the Uighurs in “reeducation” camps with the Great Purge that led the relocation and death of hundreds of thousands of Jews and peasants. China’s security crackdown in Hong Kong evokes Soviet actions taken in Czechoslovakia and Poland. These gross violations of human rights challenge the US as the world’s defender of the individual freedoms, just as they did in the second half of the 20th century. The Trump administration has responded to this challenge with unprecedented sanctions against members of the Politburo.

Finally, China’s ballooning military budget has enabled it to flex its muscles in the South China Sea, a crucial maritime corridor through which $3 trillion of annual trade passes. The creation of manmade islands and its contested claims of the Spratly islands echo Soviet expansionism. To counter this, the US has engaged in freedom of navigation operations with its powerful navy. Reed Warner, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense of Southeast Asia has characterized close run ins between US and Chinese naval ships as “unsafe” and has stated that the Chinese continue to engage in “risky and escalatory behavior” adding that the Pentagon viewed the current trend of hostile activities as very “worrisome.”

To be fair, China is not the Soviet Union. US-Chinese trade in 2018 crested $700 billion, 140 times the level of US-Soviet trade at its peak in 1979. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought China’s economic philosophy closer to that of the US than the USSR’s ever was. The Sino-American military balance is much more lopsided than it was during the first Cold War. But if we haven’t found ourselves in a Cold War redux, someone should tell our leaders. In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that if “we don’t act now, ultimately, the [Chinese Communist party] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to build.” In the same speech, he used Cold War rhetoric by drawing the line between “freedom and tyranny.” President Trump accuses Beijing of creating and covering up the “Kung Flu,” a creative Trumpian name for Covid-19. Not to be outdone, Chinese diplomat Lijian Zhao described America as “unjust” and “hypocritical” for criticizing its own human rights record, claiming that “racial discrimination, gun violence, violent law enforcement are chronic diseases deeply rooted in US Society.”

Fortunately, the lessons of the Cold War offer guidance for this new conflict. America should continue to press China on human rights abuses and repressive crackdowns, preferably leveraging its Pacific alliance network with Japan and Australia. It was the people that overthrew their autocratic overlords in the late 80s and 90s because they were confident of western support. For this reason, now is the time to support Hong Kong, not abandon it. Second, the US should not back away from multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the UN. These are vehicles from which to promote the liberal values of openness and democracy, but they are power vacuums. Where America gives ground, China encroaches. Above all, America cannot abandon its Asian allies. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea should be supported to avoid sending the signal that the US is not to be relied upon, forcing these countries to lean in the wrong direction for stability. The network of allies created during the Cold War was crucial to surviving it. American leaders should not forget this fact.

The Trump administration has sold more than $12 billion of weapons to Taipei and has recently crossed a Chinese “red line” by sending a cabinet level position, Alex Azar, to meet with President Tsai of Taiwan. Though not the same, parking billions of dollars of advanced fighter jets, torpedoes, and missiles 80 miles off the coast of Mainland China is comparable to that critical moment in the first Cold War. What comes next depends on the preparedness and the restraint of the leaders on both sides of the world’s more important bi-lateral relationship.

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