New cold war?

3 February 2010

Tensions between the US and China seem to be rising. Recent acrimony over cyber-attacks against Google and other companies emanating from China was followed by the US government’s decision to permit arms sale to Taiwan. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new cold war, between the US and China, that will shape the lives of many people in the coming decades. These two conflicts may be symbolic of the tenor and nature of the struggles to come.

The first issue over cyber-attacks has been linked to notions such as openness, freedom, liberty and democracy. The potential and merit of the internet rest in its unfettered accessibility for all. The ideals and values of freedom and democracy are claimed to be universal, but the US has enjoyed or arrogated itself the leading role in their dissemination. It is, in other words, a struggle over ideas and ideals. In the last cold war, the Soviet Union had Communism, but does China have an overall belief or a universal system? China has to come up with a convincing set of values that can appeal to outsiders, if it were to combine the soft power of ideals with the hard power of the arms. The Chinese government probably will be very busy keeping Chinese people content for the foreseeable future.

Arms sale to Taiwan is always contentious, as China’s position on Taiwan is well-known. Was this sale necessary because of the ever-increasing defence expenditure in China, and consequently China’s expanding military capability? Was this an American act intended to warn China not to push too far in flexing its military muscle? Political and diplomatic decisions are rarely made for one reason, and there were many other factors that the decision-makers have considered. Arms sale to Taiwan represents the difficulty of countering China’s military strength and threat.

At the moment, China has not yet found a narrative to counter these moves, other than to point out that such US actions are mistakes and harm Sino-American bilateral relationship. The US seems to have an upper hand, both in terms of the soft power of ideas and values, and military power. But as Chinese economy grows, and its military capability increases, the balance will become increasingly finer. Dangerous times ahead?