Diving in - Part 3 - The New Cold War
May it never turn hot
In anticipation of writing more regularly about current affairs, I’ve been publishing a series of posts laying down some markers on how I see the state of the US and the world. In the first one I covered how I will approach my writing journalistically, and in the second I laid out my case for the multiple societal crises we face in the US.
The world’s hegemonic “new kid”
However, the world is far bigger than the US, of course. There’s a new kid on the global hegemonic block - 中国 - that is, China. (I recommend learning some Mandarin.) China has come back into its own as a global leading power. It had always been a global power until stumbling for the last two centuries. So, maybe it’s not exactly a “new kid”?
Anyway, the US had become comfortable - and triumphalist - as the leading global hegemon, so the (re-)rise of China is causing friction. After a few decades of jointly opposing the Soviet Union and then becoming economically linked at the hip through global trade, the two countries are becoming increasingly belligerent.
And it has me incredibly worried.
Right now, the relationship between the US and China is being characterized as a new Cold War. Good. May it never become hot.
Personal admiration and connections
Personally, I find China and Chinese culture fascinating. My first real exposure came while living in Singapore for six years. No, Singapore is not a city in China, despite many westerners making that mistake. However, it is majority ethnically Chinese, so the local culture is influenced by the mainland.
I became familiar with many traditions and also made a point of studying eastern history, culture, and philosophy. Heck, I even took Mandarin lessons for one year, passing my level 1 Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Chinese Proficiency Test).
Also while in Singapore I got to visit China twice and loved each trip. I’d go back given the chance. Our family also made friends with families who were originally from China. I feel fairly deep connections, and honestly, it’s painful to see the two countries in opposition.
Authoritarianism vs. liberal democracy
However, all of that said, there are real differences worth being in conflict over.
China’s current government represents an alternative, authoritarian approach to running a country and society. And the simple fact is that global systems tend to follow the lead of the global hegemon. If China becomes that leading, influential power, we can expect to see more authoritarianism in the world, with liberal democracy on its back foot and restricted to a few countries in North America, the European peninsula of Eurasia, and a few others worldwide.
Put another way, there’s a reason that countries like Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia are multi-party representative democracies today instead of authoritarian regimes. The US imposed or modeled these systems following World War II and had the heft on the global stage to back them up through the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Does the US have completely clean hands when it comes to promoting liberal democratic values and regimes? Are we paragons of virtue? Of course not on both counts. But on balance, when liberal democracy was on the line, the US was decisive in its preservation.
There’s “conflict”, then there’s conflict
So, again, there is reason for conflict - make that ideological conflict. I absolutely cannot get behind armed conflict. There is no way around the fact that this would be a disaster for both countries and a global human tragedy as the entire rest of the world got sucked into the morass. This Second Cold War has to stay cold.
I worry that it could accidentally become hot very quickly over the future of Taiwan. Pres. Xi has been quite aggressive toward the island, which many regard as a separate country, but that the Chinese Community Party regards as a renegade province that still houses the remnants of the forces it defeated in the Chinese civil war following World War II. If you haven’t been paying attention, the US has been stepping up its military commitments to the security of Taiwan and all of Southeast Asia, while China has been stepping up its military incursions near Taiwan. This might all be bluster, but wars have started for less - and quite accidentally.
I feel I have a personal stake in this, too. My two sons are of the age when they would undoubtedly be drafted to fight in this war. There’s no way we would wage a war with China without a general draft. China is no Iraq or Afghanistan. But I absolutely refuse to allow my sons to be sent to fight such another disastrous war. We must avoid this.
My alternative proposal is for the US to throw its doors open to everyone and anyone who wishes to emigrate from Taiwan. I say we take in the freedom-loving, democratic people of Taiwan, with their values, culture, and business and technological expertise. (Taiwan is a leading manufacturer of computer chips.)
Of course, given the state of US immigration politics, this plan is likely just a dream. However, I was surprised to see some support for Taiwan at my son’s university recently when I visited.
It’s a common feature of many universities that there is a particular, big rock that can be painted by students to express support for causes. This is the flag of Taiwan, and the caption refers to the fact that the Chinese imperial system was overthrown 110 years ago. The people who stepped in to create the then-Republic of China were the ones who were forced to flee to Taiwan when they lost the Civil War.
Cold War 2 is upon us, but it’s very different
So, again, Cold War 2 - this time with China - is here to stay. There’s even a rare bi-partisan consensus in Washington DC about it, which hardly ever happens anymore. However, inevitably, the war hawks and the defense industry will try to make this into a hot war. That must not happen. And fortunately, our trade ties - strained as they are - might help us out. The US and Soviet Union were never as economically integrated as the US and China. Perhaps that will act as a counter-weight to our more passionate and irrational natures.
Interested in more links on this situation? Try out:
The New Cold War: America, China, and the Echoes of History
The U.S.-China Trade War Has Become a Cold War
US encircling China on multiple new Cold War fronts
And to be clear, the US is not alone in worrying about the rise of China: