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Opinion

US-China Cold War creates fresh need for 'peaceful coexistence'

Challenge posed by Beijing is real but differences can be managed

| China
The risks inherent in the interdependence and mutual vulnerability of the U.S. and China mean they will have to accommodate each other.   © Reuters

Hanns W. Maull is a senior associate fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies and a senior distinguished fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and an adjunct professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Europe.

Are America and China entangled in a new cold war?

No, at least not yet, is the view of veteran American foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye. Others, such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, talk about entering Cold War 1.5 while academics including Niall Ferguson argue that a new cold war is already in full swing.

The historical analogy of the original Cold War can help us consider where the world stands today, but only if we appreciate both the differences and the similarities between then and now.

The biggest differences between the situation then and now are said to include: the many interconnections between the economies and societies of the U.S. and China that have created profound interdependence and mutual vulnerability; the absence of military alliances or blocs lining up against each other; and lastly, the lack of an ideological contest.

On that point, China claims not to be interested in exporting its governance model, at least to the West. The Cold War, in contrast, was in part about which political and socio-economic system was superior: capitalism and democracy on the one hand, or a planned economy and totalitarian or authoritarian variants of Vladimir Lenin's "democratic centralism" on the other.

But these much-touted differences do not stand up to closer inspection.

When it came to interdependence and mutual vulnerability, it is true that the two Cold War superpowers had very limited commercial interaction and thus were not particularly vulnerable to a disruption of economic ties.

But they were profoundly interdependent and highly vulnerable in geostrategic terms once nuclear parity had been established. The U.S. and the Soviet Union learned to live with mutual assured destruction which in turn meant that only cooperative policies could address shared risks, so the national security of each side came to be based in part on mutual security.

A consequence of this mutual understanding was arms control. The resulting agreements tamed the nuclear arms race and ensured the Cold War remained "cold."

The acknowledgment of mutual vulnerability moderated the conflict between the Western and Soviet blocs and helped to establish what Moscow called "peaceful coexistence" -- a shared understanding that disagreements would be contained within certain limits.

The risks inherent in the interdependence and mutual vulnerability of the U.S. and China mean they too will have to accommodate each other.

While China does indeed reject alliances along the lines of the Warsaw Pact, its antipathy to such arrangements is easily overstated. North Korea may be China's only formal ally, but Beijing is keen to promote all kinds of partnerships as a way to get other governments to acknowledge its positions and interests.

Moreover, China has been upping its influence in international organizations while setting up new ones under the Belt and Road Initiative and other frameworks. And although China and Russia are unlikely to become formal allies, the two are cooperating ever more closely, in places ranging from Venezuela to Syria. They are united on the aim of ending the U.S.-led international order.

That in turn relates to the nature of the ideological challenge of China's foreign policy. Wherever the Chinese Communist Party can, it imposes its will ruthlessly, as the people of Hong Kong and Xinjiang can testify. Below the threshold of full control, China has been assiduously, and insidiously, cultivating its influence in other countries through activities of the party's United Front Work Department.

George Kennan, pictured in June 1947: his Long Telegram from Moscow laid the intellectual foundations for the U.S. grand strategy of containment during the Cold War.   © AP

Governments that champion human dignity and political pluralism are finding China's international posture is anything but benign. In his famous "Long Telegram" from Moscow in 1946, American diplomat George Kennan analyzed the sources of Soviet conduct in terms of ideology and power, at home and abroad.

His text laid the intellectual foundations for the U.S. grand strategy of containment during the Cold War. It also offers an excellent conceptual framework, including for Europeans, for understanding the nature of the struggle today between China and the West. Although the EU has begun to adapt to the new realities of world politics, too many European analysts and decision makers remain in denial about China.

European states and like-minded countries need to find a response to China's challenge that is both robust and measured. They should work collectively to help the U.S. and China find ways to manage their differences and push for action to satisfy the long agenda of global issues that urgently require Washington and Beijing to cooperate.

This means both will have to revise their grand strategies. The original Cold War eventually led to a peaceful coexistence that in turn made it possible to end that "war." What the world needs now is the "peaceful coevolution" of the U.S. and China.

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