espite trade woes that have marred China-US relations, few nations at the eighth Beijing Xiangshan Forum believed a new cold war was imminent. And if the US does try to provoke one, it seemed few would support it.
Held on October 24 and 26, the biennial multilateral defense and security dialogue, which has been in place since 2006, featured Sino-US relations as a hot topic after several months of trade conflicts. But in contrast with the intensifying showdown, discussions about the two nations at the forum were somewhat positive, and mainly focused on their common ground and how they could cooperate in global governance.
Attended by delegates from 67 countries and seven international organizations, the forum, themed “Building a New Type of Security Partnership of Equality, Mutual Trust and Win-Win Cooperation,” provided a chance for defense officials and professionals across the globe to discuss international security governance, terrorism, maritime security cooperation and Northeast Asian security, reflecting the world’s new security situation.
This author attended a seminar for young military officers and scholars which opened the forum, and one about the South China Sea issue.
At first, more than 50 young officers and scholars from nearly 20 countries discussed the topic “Is a New Cold War Coming?” for some three hours.
Delegates from different countries did not exaggerate the trade conflict between China and the US. While they generally argued that the two nations may take time to normalize relations, they did not think a cold war was imminent, and agreed that even if the US tried to start one, few would follow.
Delegates to the forum were conservative on the possibility of a new cold war. Most experts held that the current Sino-US relationship was not comparable to relations between the former Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War period (1947-1991).
Even though competition between China and the US has intensified and the two nations diverge ideologically, there are still many good reasons to cooperate, so it is not a life-and-death situation. There is also the issue of US policy uncertainty. The competition is still
under control. Most importantly, it appeared from the atmosphere at the forum that few countries would be willing to follow the US even if the US wanted to initiate a cold war.
The US has reached a level of domestic consensus on intensifying pressure on China, with some even proposing military confrontation. US Vice President Mike Pence’s tough speech in October, in which he criticized China on several fronts, was regarded by some as indicating the start of a new cold war. It has been likened to the “Iron Curtain” speech by Winston Churchill in 1946 that targeted the former Soviet Union and other socialist countries, which was deemed a prelude to the Cold War.
But it takes two to tango. The US cannot start a cold war on its own, neither can China and the US together. It would require the recognition and support of the whole international community.
In the 1940s, the Cold War began because both the former Soviet Union (head of the socialist camp) and the US (leader of the capitalist camp) had a deep bench of countries to follow them. Of course, the two countries tried every means, including military force, political infiltration, and economic temptation, to maintain the solidarity of their camps.
Times have changed. Now countries have many more goals to pursue in the name of development and fulfilling their obligations, rather than focusing on survival. The interests and appeals of different nations are intertwined, complicated and diverse. Some countries might have conflicts or compete with China here and there, but it remains unimaginable that they would unite against it.
Theoretically, it would be possible for the US to launch a new cold war, but the US today is probably neither willing nor able to pay the price its allies would have to shoulder if they turned against China. It would be impossible for the US to launch a global cold war without international support.
In evaluating the possibility of a new cold war, the decisions and roles of third parties, including the European Union, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Japan, should also be taken into consideration. At the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, no single country showed support for a cold war. Delegates from many countries made clear their hope that competition between China and the US does not become too extreme, and said the world could not bear the consequences of a cold war between the two largest economies.
At previous major defense and security forums the influence of the US was often omnipresent, with the country being at the center of the discussion even if its delegates did not show up. This time, however, the US was rather low profile. While Chinese representatives paid plenty of attention to the US and Sino-US relations at the forum, for delegates from other countries the US was only one of many topics discussed.
In their speeches, delegates took the initiative and primarily discussed the situation and the role of their countries, and their expectations of the international security situation. Aside from China, representatives from ASEAN countries, Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa all made an impressive showing at the forum. The debut of North Korea aroused a lot of attention. In the atmosphere of diversity and inclusiveness, the participating countries, large and small, all managed to express their concerns freely.
This diversity was no doubt due to the host’s encouragement of equality and inclusiveness. But it also reflects the changed international security situation as the world becomes multi-polarized and decentralized.
After the Cold War ended, the US was for a period the only superpower in the world – particularly regarding military strength, which grew the world’s uni-polarity. But economic globalization and the growing interdependence of different nations has rendered the role of military force less decisive, to some extent reducing this uni-polarity.
Meanwhile, the spread of technology and the emergence of global security threats has helped decentralize power across the globe. It is no longer possible for a single country, however powerful, to be unassailable or to unilaterally solve a non-traditional security issue like terrorism. And a single nation is less and less likely to decide the international security order.
In the past, the governance of international security mainly relied on the role and function of large powers, and ignored medium-sized and small countries and international organizations. Now this mindset should be abandoned as the world grows more multi-polar and
decentralized. In building the international security order, besides great powers, the interests, demands and influence of smaller countries and organizations should also be taken into account.
Decentralization has also pushed different countries closer together when it comes to security issues. When their fates are really tied together, it will grow increasingly inappropriate to advocate the law of the jungle and zero-sum thinking that rejects cooperation with others.
In this sense, a new type of security partnership which stresses equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation is probably the ultimate solution for the governance of international security, even though it might sound a bit lofty right now.
The author is executive director of Peking University Ocean Strategy Research Center