Is Cold War II Underway?

TOKYO – President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington is coming at an increasingly tense moment in Sino/American relations. Indeed, mesmerized by China’s vast military buildup, a new constellation of strategic partnerships among its neighbors, and America’s revitalized commitment to Asian security, many shrewd observers suggest that 2010 saw the first sparks of a new Cold War in Asia.  But is “Cold War II” really inevitable?

Although appeasing China’s drive for hegemony in Asia is unthinkable, every realistic effort must be made to avoid militarization of the region’s diplomacy. After all, there was nothing very cold about the Cold War in Asia. First in the Chinese civil war, and then in Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Indochina – particularly Vietnam – the Cold War raged not as an ideological/propaganda battle between rival superpowers, but in dogged, often fratricidal combat that cost millions of lives and retarded economic development and political democratization.

It is this grim history that makes China’s current disregard for Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China “disguise its ambition and hide its claws” so worrying for Asian leaders from New Delhi to Seoul and from Tokyo to Jakarta. From its refusal to condemn North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and shelling of South Korean islands, to its claims of sovereignty over various Japanese, Vietnamese, Malay, and Filipino archipelagos and newly conjured claims on India’s province of Arunachal Pradesh, China has revealed a neo-imperial swagger. So it should surprise no one that “containment” is coming to dominate Asian diplomatic discourse.

But it is wrong – at least for now – to think that a formal structure of alliances to contain China is needed in the way that one was required to contain the Soviet Union. Containment, it should be recalled, was organized against a Soviet totalitarian regime that was not only ideologically aggressive and in the process of consolidating its colonization of Eastern Europe (as well as Japan’s Northern Territories), but also deliberately sealed off from the wider world economy.