May 23, 2024
Many of our readers grew up during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, some may have served in the military or government during that time. Others have only heard tales of the "good ole days" of the Fulda Gap and a readily visible evil Communist empire for an enemy. Those days are gone but there's a new Cold War on the horizon and it's not going to be the same as the last one. WAR ROOM welcomes Julian Spencer-Churchill to explain the differences. A world that is far more globally connected, a multipolar landscape, and a trade scheme like never before will all be contributing factors to a whole new type of international conflict.

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 –


  1. In looking at two major sub-sections of the article above — specifically, “The Impending Liberal Revolution” sub-section and the “Containment Will Fail and the New Cold War May Never End” — in looking at these two major sub-sections, might we say that there may have been some kind of disconnect?

    In this regard, what I am talking about, this is that:

    a. If (Western-sponsored) liberal revolutions are the threat that China (etc.) will be dealing with — today and going forward:

    “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).”

    b. Then “containment” becomes the purview of China (etc.) — not the U.S. — yes?

    For obvious reasons (the U.S./West are now the ones doing this type of “expansion;” such nations as China, Russia, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists — thus threatened — are now the ones doing “containment”), I call this paradigm the New/Reverse Cold War.

    This New/Reverse Cold War perspective also allowing us to see why China, Russia, etc. — in pursuit of their “containment” objective above — would seek to work more “by, with and through” the “natural enemies” of “revolutionary change,” to wit: the more conservative elements of both their own — and other — populations:

    “This may, in fact, be the missing explanatory element. Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived ‘other,’ and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful ‘other’ that both cultural conservatism and political leftism defined themselves against. This also explains why leftists have, since the 1990s, become considerably more tolerant, even accepting, of cultural conservatism than they were for virtually the entire 20th century. The need to accumulate additional ideological resources to combat a perceived Western liberal ‘other’ is a powerful one, and it seems perfectly possible that this could have overridden whatever historical antagonism, or even substantive disagreement, existed between the two positions.”

    (See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China:
    Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context” by Taisu Zhang.)


    a. Much as the U.S./the West — threatened by similar “expansionist” efforts of the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday — (a) adopted a “containment” stance and (b) sought to work more by with and through “natural enemies” of “revolutionary change,” to wit: the more conservative elements our own and the world’s populations,

    b. Likewise such entities as China, Russia, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists — now threatened by the “expansionist” efforts of the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — have adopted (a) this exact same “containment” strategy and (b) related “work by, with and through the conservatives” tactics?

  2. First, from “the Impending Liberal Revolution” section of our article above:

    “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.”

    Next, from my quoted item from the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context” by Taisu Zhang:

    “Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived ‘other,’ and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful ‘other’ (to wit: Western liberalism) that both (Chinese) cultural conservatism and (Chinese) political leftism defined themselves against.” (Items in parenthesis here are mine.)


    If we consider that — throughout the world today and even here in the U.S./the West — cultural conservatives and political leftists — while not formally joining forces yet as China has done above — have, in fact, defined themselves against what Walter Russell Mead calls “market society” below:

    “In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community) fought back against the onrushing ‘Gesellschaft’ (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago.”

    (See the Mar-Apr 2017 edition of “Foreign Affairs” and, therein, the article by Walter Russell Mead entitled “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.”)

    Then, from that such perspective, can we actually say that such nations as China and Russia (who seem to have embraced “community” over “market society”) “possess no ideological advantage” over the U.S./the West (who seems to have embraced “market society” over “community”)?

    1. Re: my thoughts and question above, note that “community” and “market society” would seem to have been at loggerheads for at least the last three hundred years — since the advent of modern capitalism in the eighteenth century:

      “All in all, the 1980s and 1990s (and the 2000s and 2010s also — Muller’s book was written in 2002) were a Hayekian moment, when his once untimely liberalism came to be seen as timely. The intensification of market competition, internally and within each nation, created a more innovative and dynamic brand of capitalism. That in turn gave rise to a new chorus of laments that, as we have seen, have recurred since the eighteenth century: Community was breaking down; traditional ways of life were being destroyed; identities were thrown into question; solidarity was being undermined; egoism unleashed; wealth made conspicuous amid new inequality; philistinism was triumphant.” (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)

      (From the book “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought,” from the section therein on Friedrich Hayek.)

      This suggesting that — since at least the eighteenth century and still today — the party embracing “community” over “market society” — at least in some quarters — might, indeed, possess — at least for a time — a very POWERFUL ideological advantage?

      “Jacksonians drew their support from Northern laborers and yeoman farmers in the South and in the West. These groups, which Jackson dubbed the ‘bone and sinew of America,’ worried that the market economy would force them into the dependent class. The Jacksonians told the farmers and the laborers that they would do everything in their power to prevent this from taking place. In essence, the men and their rank and file voting allies, along with Jackson, fought a rear-guard action against encroaching industrialization and market economy. Although they won the pivotal battles, they lost the war, because their notion of a pre-capitalist agrarian society succumbed to the industrial economy after the Civil War.”

      (See the ‘Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History’ by Andrew Robertson, et al., and the section therein entitled ‘Jacksonian Democracy,’ Page 194.)”

      1. Note that:

        a. The potency of the ideological advantage enjoyed by one’s opponent in “cold wars” — for example, the ideological advantage enjoyed by China and Russia re: their adoption of the resisting/restraining “community” ideology noted in my second comment above —

        b. The potency of this such ideological advantage can generally be measured by whether other states and societies throughout the world — and especially one’s opponent’ states and societies — make serious moves to adopt this exact same ideology (in our New/Reverse Cold War example here, the resisting/restraining “community” ideology adopted and sponsored by such nations as China and Russia currently).

        As we all know, throughout much of the world today — and especially here in the U.S./the West — this is exactly what has happened. (Re: the U.S./the West, consider such things as the Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Jan 6, 2021 U.S. Capital riot as evidence of our adoption of this such “community” ideological.)

        From that such perspective, how can anyone suggest that (a) China, Russia, etc., (b) “possess no ideological advantage” over the U.S./the West today (to wit: the party that has — yesterday as today — generally embraced “market society” over “community”)?

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