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David Miller: Not The 21st Century’s Cold War

David Miller Online

The United States and China
It’s Stalemate - it’s not the 21st Century’s Cold War

The ongoing drama over the downed US Navy spy plane that landed on Hainan Island is the first major international test for the Bush Administration. Therefore it is not surprising that the President and his officials have taken a tough stance towards China. Throughout the presidential campaign last year, foreign affairs and policy where considered the Achilles Heel of Mr. Bush and should he stumble at this hurdle so early in his presidency then it will leave an indelible mark on his record. Hence the ongoing tension surrounding the spy plane incident is part of a much bigger picture. This latest incident, along with the lingering ramifications of the Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade in 1999, add to the strained relations between the two countries and once again raise questions and fears that this could become the Cold War for the 21st Century.

The idea that the US-China relationship, which is something of an enigma, could lead to a new millennium Cold War is a little premature. For a start this is a relationship, which primarily affects the Asia- Pacific region, and does not have the global implications the US- Soviet showdown did throughout the second half of last century. Second, it remains one of un-equals. China does not have the power capabilities that can compare to the US, either economically or in a military sense, and is not likely to possess such power for at least the first quarter of this century. After that, speculation replaces analysis as a means of determining this.

There are three aspects to Chinese development over the past two decades that has led to the idea of a new Cold War being put forward. The first is that the Chinese economic strength has increased dramatically. According to some analysts and writers, this increase has led to China becoming the third largest economy in the world behind the US and Japan. Although the Communist Party has remained in power since 1949, and survived the events of 1989/1990 that dealt almost deadly blows to world socialism, China has embarked upon a policy of trade and commercial liberalisation and has encouraged foreign direct investment, (FDI), labelled “authoritarian-pluralism”.

Coupled with this economic growth, China has also embarked upon an ambitious programme of military expansion and along with China’s territorial claims in the Asia- Pacific region caused the most alarm. Since the shift away from the ‘Peoples War’ doctrine that dominated Mao Tse- Tung’s thinking, the Peoples Republic has looked to purchase state of the art military equipment and technology. This includes Russian made MIG fighter planes and sophisticated naval craft, which China displayed during the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1997 and which the new generation of military elite in China believe is vital if the PRC is to successfully fight an amphibious war. Along with its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, China has also laid claim to territory in the South China Sea.

This includes the Spratly Island group, which seven regional states claim as part of their territory and which six of them currently occupy. The Spratly Islands are a valuable strategic prize to whichever state occupies them. Lying in the middle of the South China Sea, halfway between the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, the archipelago sees the majority of East Asian trade pass through its surrounding waters including twenty five percent of the world’s energy supplies. They are also believed to be rich in oil and gas resources and this has led states with Spratly possessions giving oil companies exploration rights and declaring economic zones in the region.

These aspects and the spy-plane incident have served to draw attention to the fact that there remains a lot of tension and suspicion between the countries in the region. It does not mean a new Cold War will erupt between the US and China. It means that there is now an issue on the table for two powers with interests in the region and that those interests are not always compatible. Any breakdown in the balance of power would inevitably draw countries such as Japan and South Korea into the fray and even though these are both US allies, they too have long held historical and territorial differences.

The spy-plane issue has come at an unfortunate time and in a region already plagued by hostility and suspicion. It is the first major test the Bush Administration has faced on the world stage and as it cannot afford to look weak at this early stage it has decided that there is only one path open to it. Mr. Bush has declared that the US will take a tough line with China over negotiations to have the plane returned and he has not indicated which way he will go over an upcoming decision on whether to sell military hardware, including naval vessels, to Taiwan. This is a move China bitterly opposes but along with the support for the Beijing Olympic bid and the renewal of Most Favoured Nation Status, the US can bring pressure to bear on the Chinese and add to the image that President Bush is not soft on international issues.

What must not be forgotten here is that this issue cannot be blown out of proportion by those involved and those observing the crisis. There is much at stake if relations between the two countries did break down and the security of a region could be adversely affected. It is this line of reason that will prevent the US from isolating China, and that will prevent Beijing from escalating the situation further. Although in the world of international politics nothing can be taken for granted and assumed, it is likely that the prospect of losing over US$75 billion in bi-lateral trade will make all parties think twice before embarking on a path that leads to a new Cold War.

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