In his article “The Asian Cold War” on the website for Foreign Policy magazine, American scholar Michael Austin voiced his concerns over growing tension between China and Japan, resulting from the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.

 [h4]A New Cold War in East Asia[/h4]

In his article “The Asian Cold War” on the website for Foreign Policy magazine, American scholar Michael Austin voiced his concerns over growing tension between China and Japan, resulting from the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. He pointed out that although the chances the row could develop into a hot war were slim; the dispute has frayed the tenuous partnership between the two East Asian powers, which could result in a new Cold War which could color Sino-Japanese relations for years, or even decades.

Such a conclusion is harsh, but in part reveals the essence of current Sino-Japan relations. Due to such factors as realistic interests, geopolitical contradictions and historical issues, China and Japan appear to be moving towards a more confrontational relationship. Whereas ups and downs are commonly seen in Sino-Japan relations, previous estrangements in political relations have never extended to the economic field. During the current dispute, however, Sino-Japanese trade has been seriously affected by the Diaoyu Islands dispute, which demonstrates early signs of deterioration of overall bilateral relations.

What Austin failed to see, however, is the role played by the U.S. in the new Cold War in East Asia. Without support from the U.S., Japan would never have adopted such bold policies over territorial issues in the East China Sea. Even though the U.S. has stressed its neutrality in Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, it has provided Japan with virtual support as it holds constant its stance that the US-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Diaoyu islands.

Perhaps more significantly, Washington has perceived China as its biggest challenger since Mr. Obama came to office. Although his administration have been avoiding using such terms as “adversary” or “rival” to define China, Obama split the beans in the final presidential debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney by calling China an “adversary.” This perception is hardly surprising, for it is in accordance with Obama’s strategic thinking behind the U.S. military’s “pivot to the Pacific.” The implication behind this pivot is that the biggest challenge to American hegemony is not terrorism, nor rogue states like Iran or North Korea, nor a reemerging Russia, but rather, a rapidly growing and emerging China.

Should a new Cold War develop between China and Japan, the outlook will be significantly different from the former Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. One of the major differences is that there exist conflicts of true territorial interests between China and Japan (e.g. the Diaoyu Islands), which could be quite dangerous, as it greatly heightens the risk of a Cold War becoming a hot war, especially given the current surge of nationalism in both countries. Fortunately, Chinese are never offensive realists; and more troubled by internal issues, China always tends to adopt a conservative and moderate stance in foreign relations. Besides, Japan is still subject to the American leadership in the America-Japan alliance. Therefore, even though the frictions between China and Japan would occasionally boil over, they would be manageable for the most part.

Another difference has positive effects. During the Cold War, not only did the U.S. and the Soviet Union fall victims to the structural contradictions in international politics caused by their contest for hegemony, they were also caught in a life-and-death struggle over which side had the superior model for development, while presenting the alternate model as an existential threat. This is not the case in 2012, as China has been integrated into the America-led international system. Given that the socialist camp largely ceased to exist with the Soviet Union, China’s development model, though different from the western model, no longer stands as a real threat. More importantly, given the close economic interdependence between China and Japan, and between China and the U.S. as well, the goal of this dispute would not be destruction of the competing model. Neither China nor the U.S. wants their competitor to rise to the top of the economic ladder; a serious setback in one country would greatly affect the other, due to their co-dependence.

This may be the reason why while Obama defines China as an “adversary,” he also considers China a partner, on the condition that China plays by the rules. The rules Obama speaks of, are without doubt a set of international political or economic rules established by America. America is selfish. However, as the dominant country in the current international system, it has to contain and slow down the rise of China through these rules instead imposing its will.

By this token, the core of Obama’s pivot to Asia lies in regulation rather than containment. The goal of containment remains to be to drag down and destroy the adversary. Regulation, however, means to confine the adversary to a certain track. Any departure would be responded by repeated bashes.

There are only three justified tracks that the U.S. can set: to adhere to international norms in economic practices, to promote democracy and human rights in international politics, and to avoid the use of force to change the status quo in foreign relations. In truth, the first two tracks are not essential problems for China with regards to its national interests. What matters the most is the third track. It can easily lead to unilateral confinement or even containment towards China, thus damaging China’s national interests. For example, in the Sino-Philippine standoff over Huangyan Island and the following Sino-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands this year, the U.S. has been allied with China’s opponents while maintaining neutrality in the disputes. This disparity between rhetoric and action fuels China’s doubts towards American strategy and therefore unnecessarily increases the underlying Cold War tension.

What deserves even more attention from the U.S. is that it risks making itself the target of China’s nationalism by bashing China on territorial and sovereignty issues. Despite its successful propaganda of promoting democracy and human rights, U.S. criticism of China on these matters reeks of hypocrisy. In the eyes of Chinese nationalists, past and current support for other undemocratic regimes while using this argument to assail China would undermine the favorable impression of democracy and human rights based on the American model.

Therefore, although China, Japan, and the U.S. all hold responsibility to prevent a coming new Cold War, the greatest responsibility lies with the United States. As the leader of the American-Japan alliance, it is obliged to restrain rather than encourage aggressive actions by Japan. As the dominant player in the new Sino-American Relationship, it is also obliged to prevent its strategy towards China from shifting away from regulation towards containment.

If the U.S. made any mistakes in this respect due to its ignorance of international situations or its selfishness, it might see a troubled and turbulent Asia which the U.S. by no means wants to see but in the end could not get away from. This outcome, of course, does no one any good.







但是,即使这种美日对中国的“冷战”终成事实,它也与美苏之间的冷战有着重大不同。一个不同是负面的,即中日之间在钓鱼岛等实质利益上的冲突,特别是在双 方民族情绪都仍然浓厚的时代,这种争端有将潜在的“冷战”直接上升为现实中的“热战”的风险。所幸的是,中国人从来不是进攻性现实主义者,而且由于国内问 题重重一直在对外关系中采取保守、温和的姿态,而日本则仍然在日美同盟中服从于美国的领导,这都使得双方的摩擦即使一时出轨也会受到约束,不会走得太远。

第二个不同则是正面的。美苏不但因为争夺霸权而存在国际政治中的结构性矛盾,而且都公开向外推广自己的政治社会模式,否定对方的政治社会模式,在发展道路 上进行你死我活的竞争。但当前中国却早已进入了美国主导的国际体系,而且在社会主义阵营早已垮台的情况下,其发展模式或许有别于西方,但却不再构成实质的 挑战。


或许正是因为如此,奥巴马在将中国界定为“对手”的同时,也认为中国是潜在的合作伙伴,条件是中国必须按照规则去做。这里的规则,当然指的是美国主导下的 一系列国际政治、经济等方面的规则。美国有自己的私心,但作为国际体系的领导国家,它在很大程度上必须根据这些规则而不是随心所欲地打压中国。


而美方能够名正言顺设置的“轨道”,其实只有三条:一是经济上要符合国际规范,二是政治上要民主人权,三是对外关系中不能武力改变现状。对于中国的国家利 益而言,前两条其实不是根本问题,关键是第三条在实际应用中容易导致对中国的单方面限制,甚至是遏制,从而导致中国的国家利益受损。例如,今年先后发生的 中菲黄岩岛对峙和此轮钓鱼岛争端,美方就拉了偏架,加大了中国对美方的战略疑虑,不必要地加深了潜在的“冷战”气氛。




Translator: Hong Chen

Hong Chen is an undergraduate student majoring in Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University

Editor: Andrew S. Dirks

Original Author: Li Kaisheng

Original Publication Date: October 25, 2012