The scale and circumstances of world power have changed considerably since the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Beijing is nervously avoiding the gaze of the world’s democracies, reenergized by the war in Ukraine, as it maneuvers in expectation that the growth of its economy will grant it the position of the next global hegemon. In June 2022, China launched the third of five projected aircraft carriers. Both Europe, through NATO, and the Quad, consisting of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia, are fashioning commercial initiatives and military re-mobilization for a sustained confrontation with China and its loose coalition of Russia, North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. China’s disputes with its Asian neighbors and their democratic allies is driven by its historical revanchism to overturn the geographic status quo over Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, and the impulse to reassert its tribute-like sphere of influence along the East Asian littoral, central Asia, Mongolia, and the Russian Far East. The current flashpoints are centered around Taiwan, the South China Sea, the peaks of the Himalayas, and the Korean peninsula, but will spread with the increased reach of China’s global commercial interests.
However, the coming Cold War with China will be fundamentally different from world-wide confrontation with the Soviet Union in five fundamental respects: China will encounter an international system with more peer competitors, the rivalry will coincide with high levels of trade, China’s confrontation with the West will endure considerably longer than the 45-year long contest with the USSR, revolution will be the instrument of the West rather than Communist China, and there will be smaller strategic arsenals but accelerated nuclear proliferation.
The Dragon Awakens to Multipolarity
The scale and circumstances of world power have changed considerably since the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In 1945, in a war-devastated world of 2.3 billion people, the U.S. accounted for fifty percent of the world’s manufacturing GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In 2022, the U.S. and China account for 23 and 16 percent of world GDP respectively, in a considerably more crowded world of 7.5 billion.
Although repeated triumphalist declarations of the arrival of multipolarity to displace U.S. power have proven to be mistaken, China’s rise coincides with the diffusion of industrialization and the emergence of new independent power centers. India has twice the arable land of China, a key measure of agricultural self-sufficiency, and a much younger population, important for sustained economic growth. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are entrenched astride China’s vulnerable trade route, with a combined population of 490 million persons. Africa’s population has expanded more than ten-fold from 120 million persons in 1945, to over 1.3 billion in 2022, and it is expected to have a population greater than twice that of China by 2070. Even if China’s nominal GDP exceeds that of the U.S., it will do so only as one among a number of re-established historical powers in the post-European world. The bipolar confrontation between China and democracy will be embedded in a complex multipolarity dominated by neutral powers.
The Banner Follows Trade
China will retain a powerful land army to deal with influencing its hinterland of Mongolia, Central Asia, the Himalayan frontier with India, the Russian Far East, and for intervention against Southeast Asia and North Korea. However, China’s dependence on energy and food will make the new Cold War primarily a commercial rivalry, backed by powerful navies. The competition to establish overseas bases securing natural resources and sea-lanes, will resemble the Anglo-Dutch rivalry of the seventeenth century. Access to finance, investment, technology transfers, major power markets, arms sales, foreign aid, and backing favored domestic political factions, will be the principal instruments of influence.
Because Beijing lacks the ideological appeal of the USSR, it will exploit local rivalries as an offshore balancer, and periodically become embroiled in local proxy conflicts. Unstable states will occasionally switch sides, as Indonesia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Iran did so prominently during the 1960s and 1970s. China can conceivably secure new bases in Nicaragua, Peru, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania, Algeria, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, the Solomons, and the Far East Russian Arctic. Crises will resemble the 1911 Franco-German Agadir naval dispute over Morocco, or the intervention of naval-backed proxy forces of Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union during the 1939-1940 Spanish Civil War. There are typically two motives that escalate to confrontation in a third country. First, competing commercial interests over apparently vital resources, such as oil, will assure an increasingly assertive Chinese presence in the Persian Gulf. Second, and far more volatile, are crises involving factional feuding in third countries of interest. Japanese-Chinese interventions in Korean domestic politics escalated into the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was triggered by a dispute over the allegiance and independence of Epidamnus, just as the First and Second World Wars were initiated over Serbia and Poland, respectively. However, only open conflict will disrupt trade between China and the democracies, and neither side will be sufficiently strong to impose trade embargoes on neutral states, rendering blockades ineffective, similar to the early stages of both World Wars.
The Impending Liberal Revolution
Unlike the opportunities for influence available to the USSR in the mid-twentieth century, there are no divisive domestic labor politics that look to China for an ideological solution (as Western unions did during the Great Depression of the 1930s), or anti-colonial revolutionary movements for China to exploit. In fact, the commercially-driven emergence of middle classes across the world will empower Western democracies with a strong incentive to back liberal social movements and color revolutions against authoritarian regimes (even where U.S. foreign policy itself is not broadly supported). In a world where China possesses no ideological advantage, aside from championing a superficial anti-European sentiment, Beijing will quickly become the principal sponsor of illiberal regimes. There will be a considerable erosion of global human rights norms, and the rise of Beijing-sponsored totalitarianism in states seeking to leap-frog economically, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
Containment Will Fail and the New Cold War May Never End
A containment strategy will not work to defeat China for four reasons. First, most of the world’s nations will want to continue to trade with China, even at the risk of Western hostility. Second, China is rebounding from an anomalous position of nineteenth century weakness and back into its historical position, rather than pursuing a dubious ideological crusade driven by domestic compulsions, like the Marxists did in Moscow. Third, unlike the Soviet Union’s feeble attempt to recast itself from being a European empire of conquered minorities, China is far less geopolitically fragile or prone to disintegration. Fourth, and most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been far more successful than the USSR in securing legitimacy with its citizens by delivering a balance between order and prosperity
The People’s Republic of China, therefore, is likely to evolve rather than collapse, as Beijing gradually liberalizes once it achieves post-modern living standards within the next three generations. In the near future, Beijing will be driven by a popular nationalistic foreign policy, with the net effect that it will be sustainable for decades if not for a century or longer. By comparison, other great historical powers, such as Spain (1469-1655), France (1643-1815), Germany (1871-1945), persisted in their assertiveness for much longer than the USSR. By this measure, a Cold War with China could endure past 2100.
Fewer Nuclear Weapons Spread More Widely
The size of Cold War arsenals was driven by Russia’s geopolitical insecurity born of a repeated history of costly offensives from Western Europe (1812, 1853-1856, 1914-1919), crowned by a catastrophic and genocidal Nazi invasion (1941-1944). These experiences led Moscow to an exaggerated accumulation of nuclear warheads, swelling its number of trans-continental missiles from zero in 1961 to 1300 in 1970 (with 1800 warheads), which then grew to 1398 missiles (with 7200 warheads) by 1980, with a total of 55,000 warheads manufactured. Moscow’s overwhelming fear of a German nuclear arsenal led it to submit to the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty limiting the sharing of nuclear weapons technology, which had a major impact on retarding proliferation efforts across the Communist world, including North Korea.
In contrast, China is more confident in its geographic defensibility, and therefore more restrained. During the Cold War, Chinese leader Mao Zedong was publicly outspoken that China could not be destroyed by nuclear weapons. China had a Cold War peak of at most 1000-2000 warheads in the 1980s, which shrank to 320 in 2021, and is estimated to return to its Cold War peak of 1000 by 2030. Furthermore, China is made less insecure by the spreading of nuclear arsenals to other states, even to geographically adjoining states like North Korea and Pakistan. China restricted further assistance to Iran largely in response to U.S. trade concessions, and not because it was immediately concerned about the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal in Japan or South Korea. It is conceivable that China will deploy its weapons overseas to a greater extent than the Soviet Union dared to do after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and it may see benefits in facilitating a further spread of nuclear arsenals to states like Iran, Algeria, or Turkey.
Whether the new Cold War with China will be more prone to war or nuclear escalation depends to a large extent on three factors: the frequency of accidental conflict encounters at sea, the learning between China and its adversaries in each successive crisis, and the rise of powerful third parties or common issues that would mitigate the rivalry and encourage cooperation between Beijing and the democracies.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). and former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on South Asia, conducting research in Pakistan for over ten years. He teaches a course on the strategic studies of China.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Credit: Nikita Khrushchev (1962) Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989; Xi Jingping Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation; Flags created by www.slon.pics – www.freepik.com