The US and China: Cold War vs Military Confrontation

At a virtual forum hosted by the McCain Institute a week ago, Henry Kissinger sounded real worried about the way the United States’ relations with China are going these days. And when the 97-year-old former diplomat and acclaimed political theorist says he is worried, the world must pay attention.

He is worried, he said, because the current crisis between the two economic superpowers could, if not handled rationally, lead to a war of annihilation. “For the first time in human history, humanity has the capacity to extinguish itself in a finite period of time,” he said. And that is incredibly significant coming from a well-known realist like Kissinger.

Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State at the height of the Cold War in late 1960s and 70s, doesn’t usually throw words around lightly.

I don’t necessarily like the man, he was after all responsible for much of the atrocities in the Vietnam War. Most historians agree that he was behind the idea of carpet bombing, which wiped out dozens of villages and killed thousands of people in 1972.

Trade and technological competition

However, he knows his diplomacy and he knows China. He was the chief architect of the establishment of relations with Beijing in 1971, following what was called then ‘the Ping Pong diplomacy’. His secret visit to China that year and his meeting with Chairman Mao opened the door for formal relations between the two countries, which were mostly until recently about trade and technological competition.

The tension between the two superpowers has been simmering, some say since 2013 when the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power with an aggressive economic project, dependent on big part of new technologies.

(While the global economy contracted sharply last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, China’s surprising growth in 2020 led most economists to update their forecasts for when China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy to as early as 2026, according to Fortune Magazine)

The US has since accused China of industrial espionage and unfair trade practices. China on the other hand remained calm and conciliatory most of those years, until July last year when the US State Department, led by China hawk Mike Pompeo, shut the Chinese consulate in Houston. In retaliation, Beijing ordered the US to close its consulate in the western Chinese city of Chengdu.

Faith and diplomacy

The closure of the missions came at what could be described as relations deteriorated to its lowest points, led by former President Donald Trump and Pompeo. For them it was personal. Pompeo is a devoted member of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas and a devout Christian who a foreign policy magazine once said, blends his faith and diplomacy.

In 2014, when he was a member of Congress, he said that the US campaign against terrorism was a war between Christians and Muslims. China, as a Communist country, represents the incarnation of evil in the mind of Pompeo. During his years a Secretary of State, he used almost Cold War era language to speak about China. He used the terms tyranny, global domination and freedom versus oppression, when he described the US position towards China.

A day after President Joe Biden took office, on January 21, China announced sanctions on 28 former officials of the Trump administration. Pompeo was on top of the list. The Chinese foreign ministry said those officials, especially Pompeo, John Bolton and Steve Bannon, “out of their selfish political interests and prejudice and hatred against China and showing no regard for the interests of the Chinese and American people, have planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves [against China and] gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people.”

'Make America Great Again'

It was also personal for Trump. His advisors seemed to have urged him to raise the anti-China rhetoric dung the 2018 presidential campaign and in his presidential speeches therefore because such language appeals to his nationalist voters and sync with his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan.

He accused past presidents of ‘stupidity’ because they “let China rip off America for decades.” He accused China of spying on the US and when the coronavirus hit the world, Trump named it the China Virus much to the disdain and protests of the Chinese government. He accused China of covering up the Covid-19 initial outbreak.

Some expected the new administration would rapture the China friction. However, Biden and his team seem to continue the hawkish policies of Trump and Pompeo. Wary that he would be seen as soft, Biden has said his administration is “united with its allies in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad.”

In March, Washington sanctioned 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials to protest the previously autonomous island’s new security and election laws.

Is the US serious about the confrontation? All recent moves by the US suggest that it is planning for it. Biden’s disengagement from the Middle East, his withdrawal from Afghanistan, his unusual hurry to re-join the Iran nuclear deal, all carry the signs of an admiration that doesn’t want anything to disrupt its focus on China. And if you listen carefully to the US top military officials, the conformation may not be confined to diplomacy.

The US generals are preparing for war. General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed recently at a speech at Howard University that the rise of China is the source “potential international instability,” especially with the “the advent of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics that could prove decisive to warfare.”

He said China’s rise, which he compared to ‘the fall of Rome’, was changing the status quo after decades in which the US essentially was “the unchallenged global military, political and economic power.”

His boss, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had few days earlier called on the US to prepare for a potential future conflict (he was careful not mention China here) that will be nothing like the traditional wars. Austin called for integrating technological advances, especially artificial intelligence in military operations to “understand faster, decide faster and act faster.”

Back to Kissinger. He told the McCain Institute that the world has developed the technology of a power that is beyond what anybody imagined even 70 years ago. “And now, to the nuclear issue is added the high-tech issue. So, in a military conflict between high-tech powers, it’s of colossal significance.”

No reasonable person expects the US to go to war against China. But the possibility is that we may see a new type of cold war. Both countries have what it takes to deter an actual war. But they too have wat it takes to initiate a prolonged political, economic and trade war that would be played in arenas around the world. As much as I hate to say this, but I hope this time we all listen to Kissinger.

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