A second Cold War is beginning to emerge, and no, it’s not between the U.S. and Russia. The new Cold War will pit the United States against China. China’s rise in the past 30-40 years has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Such rapid, sustained growth in such a large country is unprecedented and unmatched in human history. But China’s rapid rise alone is not the reason for the new Cold War. It is such a rise combined with China’s authoritarian system that puts it on a collision course with the world’s current superpower, the US.
Make no mistake, China is authoritarian and increasingly so. The Chinese Communist Party is in full control of every aspect of Chinese society, and shows no sign of letting go of power. China’s crackdown on dissent has even begun to go global. The Party tolerates no challenges to its rule. But China’s rapid economic growth has made it harder for the party to maintain such control. China’s growing middle class is increasingly unwilling to trade freedom for fortune, and their rising economic muscle provides them with the ability to challenge the Party. With economic growth in China has come a rapid rise in education and connections with the outside world. The Internet is a prime example. More and more people in China have the necessary skills to try their hand at ‘hacktivism’ and join the growing cyber-war within the country. The country is also seeing an ever increasing number of street protests, and even self-immolations in Tibet and elsewhere in the country. A new film made in Hong Kong reflects the growing fear of the Chinese government. But increasing social unrest has not stopped the Chinese Communist Party from following an assertive, muscular foreign policy.
The South China sea dispute is the front line of China’s aggressive foreign policy, and hardly a week goes by without an incident. China’s campaign of ‘island building’ in the region is changing the facts on the ground in China’s favor. It is also providing China with bases in the region in which to place the equipment necessary to protect its interests in the region. This includes anti-air missiles, fighter jets, naval bases, and all the required support facilities. Anti-ship missiles, while not reported to be in the region yet, are surely soon to follow. The goal for China is to deny the US navy from being able to operate safely in the region in the event of war and to cow China’s neighbors into submission. The country’s new base in Djibouti and growing arms sales reflect China’s increasing desire to both expand its presence abroad and build alliances. In the Cold War between the US and USSR, arms sales was one of the primary methods of gaining a proxy. So far, China has not translated its arms sales into significant influence but it will mostly like seek to do so in the near future. China’s massive infrastructure investments in Africa, on the other hand, have borne diplomatic fruit and has improved China’s standing in Africa allowing it to negotiate favorable trade treaties.
At the same time that China is trying to push beyond its borders the United States is seeking to contain China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not just a trade agreement, it represents an attempt to contain China. While some of the nation involved (particularly nations in the Americas) and mostly in it for trade reasons, most of the Asian signatories involved seek to protect their economies from China. By banding together and increasing trade and investment between themselves, they hope to keep themselves competitive against the Chinese economy. Most every nation in Asia except for China has either already joined, expressed interest, or declared an intent to join the TPP. President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ represents a real attempt to build up US military infrastructure in Asia to help support American allies in the region against China.
China is an increasingly powerful, wealthy, ambitious, aggressive, and unstable country. As it antagonizes both its neighbors and its population their will be a corresponding increase in both attempts and opportunities for its rivals to undermine China. China will surely push back and the region will undoubtedly experience an increase in Cold War-style espionage. China’s well-known cyber attacks suggest that it has already begun. The Second Cold War is beginning, but for now, the end is unclear.