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#35 - Cold War II
冷战 - Leng3 Zhan4 - Cold War
For future generations, 2023 may be a contender for the year that the Sino-American Cold War began in earnest. There are three main reasons why a new Cold War looks likely.
The first reason is proximate and more tactical: the continued destruction of a network of Chinese surveillance systems spying on the United States. While US officials suggested this activity has been going on for some time, this is no longer business as usual. The American and Chinese people are now cognizant of activity that has been conducted for years. The American people will want answers and solutions from their elected representatives. The Chinese people will look to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for guidance on a national consensus.
CCP national consensus has been directed primarily at the domestic audience, as usual. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) effectively chose a proportional response by possibly downing an American surveillance system off Rizhao, China. The PRC continues to decline engaging in talks with the US over the balloon because:
Beijing still claims that the aircraft is a civilian climate research vehicle. Beijing also claims that the vehicle was not steered over the US, but simply strayed over the US because of weather conditions. Therefore, the use of force against a civilian vehicle violates international practice and sets a bad precedent. (Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, & Tan Kefei, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense)
The US hasn’t created a proper atmosphere for dialogue. (Tan Kefei)
The US response is part of an information warfare campaign waged by the US against China. The international community knows clearly who the number 1 spying and surveillance empire is. (Mao Ning)
In the last year, 10 US balloons have overflown PRC airspace. (PRC Foreign Ministry)
The responses and reactions on the Chinese side are somewhat scattered and uncoordinated. Even if the primary focus is the domestic audience, these actions make dialogue with the US extremely difficult. The US response to China has been:
To claim that the high-altitude device was part of a years-long, global surveillance program run by Beijing. (Secretary of State Blinken)
To claim that this system of balloons did not constitute a major security breach. (President Biden)
State that these balloon systems violate US national airspace, which means they can legally be shot down. (President Biden)
To claim that the downed balloon carried signals intelligence capabilities able to monitor US communications. (Senior State Department Official)
The US Commerce Department blacklisted six entities (five aerospace corporations and one research institution) it claims are linked to the balloon surveillance program.
This tit for tat spiral is familiar to anyone that was old enough to pay attention during the Soviet-US Cold War I. There is a possibility that Blinken may meet Wang Yi at the sidelines of the upcoming Munich Security Conference (17-19 Feb) but opportunities for constructive dialogue are waning.
Of course, this is just the smaller tactical reason the US and PRC are entering a Cold War spiral. The larger operational reason is that Beijing has pursued a decades-long arms buildup to become undeniably the most powerful military power in Asia. The PLA’s military breakout is occurring at breakneck speed. What many observers don’t appreciate is that this pace has not abated. The PLA continues to build new weapons and produce the world’s largest number of warfighting platforms at increasingly higher speeds year after year, driving changing perceptions across Asia and the globe.
Simultaneously, there is a third reason lying at the deeper strategic level. On the current glidepath, the US and China are growing too far apart to see eye to eye. Cultural divides lead to major differences in values. Disagreeing over values inevitably leads to disagreement over policies, trade, diplomacy, and a host of other issues.This cultural divergence is tolerable between nations when there is a clear power differential. It is the power differential that makes it clear when one side should back down. This was the case in the 1955, 1958, and 1996 Taiwan strait crises. In these instances, the US employed nuclear weapons, US Navy aircraft carriers, and arming the Taiwan military all to communicate US intent to employ the significant military power gap in Washington’s favor. In all three cases, the CCP backed down relatively quickly.
It should be a surprise to nobody that the CCP spent the intervening nearly 30 years building a stronger military which cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, or a capable Taiwan. Washington’s old playbook for dealing with the China-Taiwan problem is now moot. New strategies and operations must be utilized if deterrence is to prevail. The US will force the CCP’s hand if Washington maintains strategic ambiguity based on outdated policy. The Department of Defense must complete the painful process of correcting last generation counterinsurgency operational drift. Whether or not the US is ready for conflict, Beijing will require the American people to pay a terrible price in order to win.
Though the millennium has already passed in peace, the community of nations is at the threshold of a new century. None of us knows what will be next.