Mariano Caucino

US-China and Cold War Lessons

In the absence of a more suitable analogy, a new Cold War seems to be looming between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

To what extent the two giants will clash arises as the main strategic dilemma in the future to come. Once again, the Chinese Balloon incident, occurred last week, tensed the diplomatic links between Washington and Beijing.

Those facts closed aspirations of a Detente. The incident took place when both nations seemed to be trying a thaw since the Biden-Xi summit during the G20 meeting in Bali (Indonesia).

To the point that the detection and subequent shot down of the Chinese balloon caused the immediate cancellation of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken trip to Beijing.

During his State of the Union Speech before the US Congress, Biden assured that all Chinese aggressions will be answered. The President asserted that he seeks to cooperate with Beijing as long as it can lead to progress for US interests and benefits for the world, but warned that “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.”

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities stated that the balloon just had meteorological observation purposes and denounced an indiscriminate use of force against an unmanned civilian aircraft. According to the CCP Politburo, the US dealt a significant blow against efforts tending to “stabilize” Sino-American relations.  But behind the controversial balloons, the escalation in confrontational rhetoric occurred in the midst of a unique circumstance.

When the US simultaneously faces China and Russia, with the threat of an unfavorable balance for the West long-term interests. Since both Beijing and Moscow maintain a revisionist position that rejects the US lead liberal order that emerged at the end of World War II.

But unlike the former Soviet Union, China enjoys an economic superpower status capable of facing the US. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin explained when he warned that Beijing is the sole power with the capacity to challenge Washington’s global leadership in words and deeds. Such a reality that arises a fundamental difference with respect to the Cold War. The one that in its day confronted two rival geopolitical realities that represented opposing ideological models with a minimum of interrelation.

Because, the USSR contained an original failure. In which its omnipotent military apparatus hid an economy incapable of producing wealth. Lenin and Stalin’s empire was ultimately a Third World superpower. As was demonstrated when it was unable to withstand the fall in the price of oil from the mid-1980s. Which eventually led to the collapse of the Kremlin in the midst of the imperial burden that has ultimately brought down all the empires of this world.

Today, the US and China account for almost 40 percent of global GDP combined and maintain a degree of interrelation that is impossible to ignore. Escaping the temptation of a renewed Thucydides Trap constitutes the litmus test for its leaders of today and tomorrow. In which the modest aspiration of avoiding a catastrophe seems to be the highest claim that can be expected, as was explained by CSIS´s China specialist Jude Blanchette in the Financial Times.

Because on key issues such as Taiwan, Ukraine, trade conflicts and cyber competition, China and the US stand in opposite camps. Which leads us to think that if this is not a new Cold War, it is quite similar.

To the extent that some lessons from the past regain value. Like the one that emerges from Richard Nixon´s words during his historic trip to China in 1972. When he described that the future of the world would be dark if two great Peoples like China and the US maintained their enmity. While, if cooperation formulas were found, that would increase the chance for peace.

The staunchest anticommunist explained that in this small world, two countries of that scale could not be maintained in a state of isolation. “None of us aspire to the territory of the other, none of us seeks to dominate the other and none of us pretend to rule the world,” he said. Nixon noted that “we have been enemies. We still have great differences. But what unites us is that we have common interests that transcend our differences.”

Owner of an unrepeatable and controversial character, riddled with contradictions that would elevate him to glory and plunge him into disgrace, Nixon died two decades after fulfilling his greatest contribution to history: the opening to China. Next to his grave in Yorba Linda (California), a plaque reads: “The greatest honor History can bestow is that of Peacemaker.”

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).
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