The Cold War comprised the second half of Europe’s ‘short’ 20th century, which lasted from 1914 to 1989. The First World War and Russian Revolution destroyed Europe’s old order, and gave rise to an age of totalitarianism. Soviet policy after the defeat of Nazi Germany drew on old Russian fears and traditions but the communist ideology that it espoused was global in ambition and attraction. Resisting further communist expansion was important for the West because there was no ideological and, or so it seemed at times, practical limit to it. The strategy of ‘containment’ sought to build countervailing military and economic centres on the Soviet periphery, to isolate communism politically, economically and militarily, and ultimately — in the words of ‘NSC 68’ (the 1950 National Security Council report to the US president) — to ‘foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system’.
Despite superficial parallels between today’s China and the Soviet Union (not least a peculiar interest in white-wall tyres) it is difficult to see that current differences between China and the Philippines, or China and Japan, amount to a similar threat to the existence of the ‘free world’ itself. This is not to belittle the challenge that China’s view of international affairs poses to the system of international law and the principle of (legal) equality of states on which the current international system is based. But China’s aspirations are not to sweep away the domestic political systems of the US and its allies, nor are they expansionist in the way that the Soviet Union subjugated Eastern Europe, or sought to do in Afghanistan or Angola. China and the West are not isolated from each other in the way the Soviet Union was, and today’s conflict is about status, not ideology.
Increasing firmness and resolve in meeting Chinese provocations may well be necessary to manage regional tensions, but even more forceful proposals for pushing back against China are still a far cry from the economic, political and military necessities that fighting the Cold War imposed on the US and its allies. There is a danger that evoking the image of the implacable Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And yet, there is one important aspect that East Asia today does share with the Cold War (and earlier times): the fact that war between the great powers is becoming thinkable again. (Re)Learning to live in the shadow of a possible third World War means that the geostrategic holiday of the post-Cold War era is well and truly over for the countries of East Asia. Managing rapid military-technological competition is not something the US or its allies do very well any more. It has been a while since escalation paths, crisis stability or theatre and strategic balance were the subject of presidential campaigns and household debates. And without a serious threat, the US and its allies were spared the difficult choices about the risk and loss of sovereignty that participation in an integrated alliance system entails.
Overall, the Cold War example is thus more useful as a reminder of how difficult managing great power conflict in Asia will be than for any insights about the particular challenge posed by China. China is fundamentally different from the Soviet Union, and so will have to be US and allied strategies to deal with it. On the positive side, this means that a new Cold War is not inevitable, or even likely. On the negative side, however, the Cold War was also a historic success, because great power rivalry did not result in major power war. Ensuring that the same is true this time again will be difficult enough, even without misleading historical analogies.
Stephan Frühling is Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.