A new sort of cold war


IO – Over the past few years there has been a convergence of opinions between America’s Democratic and Republican parties. 

Absolutely wrong, you say? Sure, on most policy issues, especially in the polarized atmosphere we live in today, there is no missing the fact there is a bitter divide between the two parties, a divide that is not likely to go away any time soon. 

On the other hand, it is an entirely different matter when it comes to the question of China. On this, there has emerged a nearly unanimous consensus that America›s main competitor in global politics poses a threat to its national security, both at home and abroad, as well as its economic interests. 

William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, summarized it best in a recent speech at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, where he talked about China›s unfair trading practices, its corporate espionage activities, outright theft of intellectual property, and Beijing›s using cyber warfare to further its interests and undermine its opponents. Barr even accused American firms of what he described as «corporate appeasement» of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, saying the «CCP has launched an orchestrated campaign across all of its many tentacles in Chinese government and society to exploit the openness of our institutions in order to destroy them.» 

Even countries in Europe, which has tended to be more sober-minded than Washington in its foreign policy, have started to become more openly critical. Although the European Union is a major trading partner of China and some of its member states have been beneficiaries of the One Belt One Road initiative, European parliamentarians are starting to change their minds and have begun looking into tougher policies, for example on the possibility of sanctioning China for its controversial new security law in Hong Kong. Before soon, it looks likely the West will once again–as it did in the first Cold War with the Soviet Union–decide on a more cooperative and, at the same time aggressive, approach towards its new nemesis. 

For those of us in Asia, the prospect of heightened tensions between the West and China raises some troubling questions. How will Washington, for example, treat more neutral countries such as Indonesia when they consider the balance of power within Asia itself? Will America try to force the hand of China›s neighbors to choose sides? Will China behave likewise? What does taking sides even mean? 

It turns out that answering these critical questions is not so straightforward. 

For starters, the New Cold War is a misleading moniker. In the struggle between the West and the Soviet Union, the main features were a clash of diametrically opposed ideologies, proxy wars in developing countries and a dangerous nuclear arms race. It was obvious to everybody who stood on what side of the fence–there was the Iron Curtain in Europe, and then there was the Bamboo Curtain in Asia. 

But in today›s New Cold War, such distinctions are blurred, and it is a qualitatively different type of cold war. 

In this cold war, there are no curtains. There are no equivalents of a NATO or Warsaw Pact. There will be no proxy wars. There is a risk of a nuclear arms race, but it is not a certainty. 

What we can say for sure is the West in general and America in particular are united on a few key issues. Politicians across the Atlantic want the current international order to remain intact while China looks to alter it. America wants to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon, while there is no doubt that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party harbour a vision of rising to the commanding heights of Asia. 

What is not certain, at least yet, is how the West will counter China. Will it be just more of the same, such as trade wars, or more sanctions, or will the West take off its gloves and be less restrained than before? 

As China›s neighbors, we are worried the New Cold War could turn from hot, to even hotter, and, in the end, we will get caught in the crosshairs. 

Indonesia, for example, should not be pressured, neither by China nor America, to take sides. Political leaders in Washington and Beijing should understand that on some issues we will agree, and on others we will disagree. 

If we decide to deepen our military relations to America, for example, that should not be interpreted by Beijing that our country is dangerously leaning towards the West. And likewise, if Indonesia trades more with China, the Washington establishment should not mistakenly conclude that we are getting too comfortable with Beijing. Neither conclusion is correct–Indonesia prefers to keep an equidistance between the great powers of the region, and its policies will reflect what best serves our interests.