Our Real Security: Preventing a New Cold War with China

MAPA Newsletter February 2021

by Joseph Gerson

Originally published in Common Dreams

Pressing for peaceful resolution of U.S.-China tensions in ways that provide mutual benefit for both sides and other Asia-Pacific nations needs to become a peace movement priority.

Once again a self-defeating Washington consensus threaten the real security interests of the U.S. people. Military confrontations and preparations for great power war with China are a clear and present danger when our priorities should be international collaborations to address real threats to our security: today’s and future pandemics and the existential dangers of the climate emergency and nuclear weapons.

With his trade war, provocative military actions, and his election-related scapegoating of China for everything that ails the United States, Donald Trump crystalized a new Cold War with China.

With Joe Biden’s election, more than half the nation is exhaling with a sense of relief. Donald Trump’s defeat provides a stay of execution for U.S. democracy and will hopefully lead to life-affirming changes in U.S. domestic policies. Unfortunately, the rhetoric will be different, but not a lot more can be expected to change as Biden, Blinken, General Austin and their comrades embrace the Cold War with China.


Two paradigms illuminate the present danger. First is the Thucydides Trap, named for the ancient Greek historian’s analysis of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He stressed the inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers that more often than not have resulted in catastrophic wars. The post-WWII Bretton Woods international order and the transformation of the Pacific Ocean into an “American Lake” were both imposed by the United States when China was an extremely poor and technologically undeveloped nation. Chinese needs and interests were not considered. In recent decades, as China has risen to become the world’s second largest economy and a technological and military power, it has understandably been pressing to revise, but not overturn, the rules of the road.

Similarities to the period leading to WWI include tensions between rising and declining powers, complex alliance structures, intense nationalism with the attendant hatred of others, territorial disputes, arms races with new technologies, economic integration and competition, autocracies, and wild-card actors.  Just as a nationalist’s gunshots in remote Sarajevo triggered a global war, today an incident, accident, or miscalculation – for example, a collision of warships or war planes in the South China Sea or near Taiwan – could easily escalate to a major, potentially nuclear, war.

We urgently need to understand the seriousness of the moment and the imperative of pressing the Biden Administration to reject the containment policies that date to the 1990s, and which were escalated by Obama and Trump. Despite our differences, détente and Common Security diplomacy with China are essential.

Human security is also endangered as the two powers expand their military capabilities at a frightening pace, diverting funds from critical human needs to military purposes, and igniting a new nuclear arms race.

We share common interests with the Chinese people and government, despite our profound differences. Together we face the existential threats of climate change, current and future pandemics, and the dangers of nuclear cataclysm.

The New Cold War is fueled by a dynamic of seemingly irreconcilable assessments of U.S. and Chinese behavior. A formerly marginalized but now rising power is asserting its interests against those of a long dominant hegemon, leading each side to assert ostensibly legitimate reasons for actions that the other side considers threatening, resulting in spiraling tensions.

Human security is also endangered as the two powers expand their military capabilities at a frightening pace, diverting funds from critical human needs to military purposes, and igniting a new nuclear arms race.

The Pentagon’s new strategic doctrine is its third major transition over the past 75 years. It comes after cold war containment of the Soviet Union and the futile war on terrorism. The U.S. military and related institutions are again preparing for great power war against China and/or Russia. The Pentagon has designated China as its peer competitor. Secretary of State and possible 2024 Republican presidential nominee Mike Pompeo named the Chinese Communist Party as an enemy, not an adversary, while Antony Blinken sees China as a rival against which the U.S. has to bolster its military alliance.  The U.S. is pressuring other nations to reduce their ties with Beijing, and despite Trump’s “American First” unilateralism and disruptive diplomacy has already be reinforcing alliances and military ties with nations surrounding China. Largely unnoticed in early December, what used to be the “Atlantic Alliance” launched “NATO 2030”, which makes containing China NATO’s new priority.

The New Cold War is unfolding on many fronts. Biden will continue the Obama and Trump campaigns to contain China militarily, technologically, and economically. Beijing is being surrounded with hundreds of U.S. military bases, alliances, and near-alliances along China’s eastern, southern, and western peripheries – including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines Australia, and India, reinforced by  the omnicidal power of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. This system is being reinforced by increasing military collaborations by the QUAD, the not quite Asian NATO: the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. Add to this deployments of offensive land- and sea-based intermediate range missiles opposite China’s eastern coast.

One measure of the military imbalance is that the US has five aircraft carrier groups in Asia Pacific, while China has two, one a 40-year-old Ukrainian carrier and the other a Chinese built ship, a replica of the Ukrainian model.

Recalling the dawn of the nuclear age, we live in a time when arms races and pursuit of dominance are wed to scientific and technological breakthroughs. Vast U.S., Chinese, and Russian fortunes are being invested in the weaponization of artificial intelligence, robotic, cyber and hypersonic technologies, several of which may operate beyond human control. This race for technological military superiority is deepening the militarization of the societies of all three great powers, including mining their private sectors and universities for the technologies that can assure victory in a future war. Star Wars science fiction is becoming 21st-century reality.

As part of its containment campaign, the U.S. is blocking Chinese access to U.S. technologies. Most well-known is the global campaign against Huawei. But a growing number of Chinese scientists in the U.S. are being charged and deported as spies, which in turn fuels anti-Asian racism.  Barriers are being raised against Chinese students studying in our colleges and universities, and visa restrictions are making it increasingly difficult for Chinese tourists to visit Disneyland.

China, of course, is no innocent. It has blocked its citizens’ access to Facebook, Google, and other U.S. tech platforms, and its lack of respect for intellectual property rights and its history of industrial espionage are well known.

Because economic power serves as the foundation of political stability and military and technological capacities, the U.S. is working to “decouple” its economy from China, stifling Chinese exports to the U.S. with tariffs on Chinese goods that the Biden Administration is likely to continue. China has retaliated with high tariffs on some U.S. products.

At the very least, we need to work for demilitarization in contested regions, beginning with ending military provocations that could escalate beyond control. The U.S. has increased naval show-of-force operations in waters adjacent to China, especially in the East and South China Seas, in order to intimidate and humiliate China. The South China Sea, over which 40% of world trade and nearly all of the oil which fuels China’s economy travels, has become the geopolitical center of the struggle for world power. Were the U.S. to blockade China and cut off its oil supplies, the Chinese economy would screech to a halt. Add to that, the U.S. Air-Sea Battle doctrine is designed to hold hostage China’s economic and financial foundations, concentrated along its coastlines.

It is no wonder that China is engaged in a major military buildup, including its construction of military bases on islets in waters claimed by other nations, in violation of international law and a recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.

The Pentagon recognizes that China’s policy is strategic defense. Beijing is focused on its traditional strategic vulnerability: the threat coming from the sea, as it did during the murderous Opium Wars and Japan’s 20th century invasions. Chinese industry is concentrated in Southeast and East China. Its navy faces the threat of being bottled up in the South China Sea, and there are those hundreds of US bases and the 7th fleet.

Even as the Pentagon warns of a rising Chinese military threat, Beijing is hardly on a par with the U.S. The Pentagon budget is three times that of China and Washington has twenty times more nuclear weapons than China. And the U.S. military as been continuously at war for the past four decades, making it battle hardened, while China has not been to war over the same period.

Although she was passed over as Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense, a statement by Michelle Flournoy reflects a key Pentagon goal:  the ability to sink China’s navy within 72 hours. That said, China’s asymmetric warfare capabilities should not be underestimated. Its cyber and space warfare, and artificial intelligence capacities could prove able to offset the imbalance of power.

All of this has fueled China’s massive military modernization and buildup since Bill Clinton sent two nuclear-capable aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait in 1996. It is also the source of China’s unjustified claims of sovereignty over 80-90% of the South China Sea, its construction of military bases on rocks and islets in waters claimed by other Asian-Pacific nations, and its massive naval and related military buildup.  But China’s priority has been creating area-denial capabilities within the First Island Chain, not global military hegemony. This comes at the expense of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other claimants to South China Sea waters.

As the Philippine scholar and political figure Walden Bello has repeatedly stated, this is the wrong solution to the very real challenge China faces. The solution lies in demilitarization of the region and intensified Chinese-ASEAN diplomacy.

The second major flashpoint is Taiwan, which since 1949 the Chinese government has seen as a renegade province. The situation has become more complicated with the development of a democratic society there since the 1980s and China’s recent consolidation of control over Hong Kong, which undermines confidence in its ability to respect one-country two-systems reunification commitments in the future. As part of the Trump administration’s ratcheting up of tensions with China, the U.S. has upgraded diplomatic and military ties with Taipei, increased its air and naval presence in the area, and committed to an additional $3.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, including potentially offensive weapons. In response, China has responded with increased military muscle-flexing in waters near Taiwan and in and around Taiwanese airspace. The dangers of an accident, incident, or miscalculation are thus very high and could lead to a catastrophic war.

In an era in which our society and the rest of humanity are confronted by pandemics, the climate emergency, massive unemployment, poverty, crumbling infrastructures and nuclear dangers, the pursuit of hegemony and preparations for catastrophic war are self-destructive and insane.

Pressing for peaceful resolution of U.S.-China tensions in ways that provide mutual benefit for both sides and other Asia-Pacific nations needs to become a peace movement priority.   Peaceful alternatives are available and must be pursued. Among them: halting freedom of navigation provocations, encouraging ASEAN-Chinese negotiations, cancelling arms sales to Taiwan, and encouraging Taiwanese-Chinese negotiations. Equally important is insisting on changing U.S. national budget priorities. Real security lies in investing in public health, education, housing, and food for all. With the seas rising, our security and future health can be achieved only by investing in green energy and the infrastructure needed to protect our coastal cities.

Remarkably, we can even find a call from the U.S. Naval War College for the U.S. to meet China halfway.  A host of new peace and anti-war formations have emerged to prevent and reverse the Cold War with China. Among them, look for statements and webinars in the coming months from the newly created Committee for a Sane U.S. China Policy and a more movement-oriented Asia-Pacific Working Group.

— Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmaent and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy, Vice President of the International Peace Bureau and member of the board of Massachusetts Peace Action. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes.