The Cold War is Back, and China’s Going to be a Bigger Player This Time

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in 2015.

On August 31, 2016 the U.S. Naval War College opened its new Russia Maritime Studies Institute, an academic center focused on the study of Russia’s approach to maritime issues. The institute’s director, Michael Petersen, told the Associated Press the resurgence of Russia’s military has enabled it to become more “adventuresome” with its foreign policy. He cited Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine and its intervention in Syrian on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad’s government as two examples. Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia could easily be added as a third.

While Russia’s involvement in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine stand out as obvious sites of tension between Russia and the United States, there have been numerous other indicators that the two countries, and their allies, are gearing up for an era of increased hostilities. For instance, an August article in Newsweek by Nolan Peterson exclaimed “Europeans are quietly preparing for war with Russia“.

Peterson listed several examples of Russian “military brinksmanship” in Europe, such as Russian military aircraft buzzing NATO ships and aircraft, “subversive propaganda campaigns”, and cyberattacks intended to inspire separatist sentiments among minority Russian populations in eastern European nations. He also discussed NATO redeployments in Eastern Europe in “numbers unmatched since the Cold War“.

At the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, Poland, alliance leaders formally announced the planned deployment of four combat battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on a rotational basis beginning next year,” Peterson writes. “The battalions will be fielded by Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

Soldiers from Poland's 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies' Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland, on June 7, 2016 (Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters).

Soldiers from Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies’ Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland, on June 7, 2016 (Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters).

Announcement of the redeployment came only weeks after NATO carried out Anakonda-16 — a 10-day-long military exercise involving 31,000 troops and large numbers of vehicles, aircraft, and ships — in Poland. The U.S. Army Europe said the goal of Anakonda-16 was to “train, exercise, and integrate the Polish national command and force structures into an allied, joint multi-national environment“.

Russia saw the exercises as a provocation and accused NATO of threatening its security by expanding eastwards, according to an article from The Independent. Moscow warned of retaliation for such encroachment on its borders.

The Syrian Civil War Has Become Proxy War Straight Out Of The Cold War Playbook
Things are heating up outside of the European theater as well. While it’s common knowledge that Washington and Moscow have a difference of opinion regarding the preferred outcome in Syria, what’s not always obvious is how close the two military rivals have come to direct engagement with each other in Syria.

The last time a U.S. military warplane shot down a Russian—actually, Soviet—plane was in 1953, over Korea or China, depending on which historians you believe. The last time a Russian or Soviet warplane shot down an American aircraft was in 1970, when a U.S. Army plane strayed over Armenia. — David Axe, “U.S. and Russian Jets Clash Over Syria“, The Daily Beast, 20.06.2016.

In June, U.S. F/A-18 fighters and Russian Su-34s played cat and mouse in the skies near al-Tanf in Syria as the Su-34s bombed U.S.-allied rebels in the area, and even hit a secret base used by U.S. and British elite forces — twice, in two separate sorties — despite being informed of who used the base (see also here). The Su-34s left after the F/A-18s intercepted them and advised them to quit bombing the rebel targets, but they returned and continued bombing as soon as the F/A-18s left to refuel.

Most of the British and U.S. personal had left the base a few days before the bombing. Four U.S.-allied rebels were killed in the attack. If American or British soldiers had been killed or wounded, it would have created a diplomatic nightmare for all sides and made the Syrian quagmire even more complicated.

Troop redeployments and antagonisms between old military rivals in the midst of a proxy war are commonplace. Buzzings, cyberattacks, and one nation’s craft intercepting another’s happen, to varying degrees, all the time. Periodic escalations can be expected, and easily dismissed.

The Return Of Good Ol’ American Red-Baiting
Perhaps what’s more indicative of the changing climate of U.S.-Russia relations is an increase in inflammatory rhetoric from both sides, an upswing in the proverbial saber rattling.

When Wikileaks released a cache of internal Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails it received after someone hacked into the DNC’s system, both the Obama administration and U.S. presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton were quick to blame Moscow. They accused the Kremlin of meddling in U.S. elections, and made a point of noting that Clinton’s political rival, Republican nominee Donald Trump, had repeatedly praised Russian President Vladamir Putin. U.S. President Barack Obama noted that if it were indeed Russian operatives who perpetrated the hack, it would be among a “long list of issues” between the old foes.

The implications were clear: Russia is a threat to American democracy, and Trump’s qualifications to be president are questionable because he has said nice things about Putin, and perhaps has other links to him. The dialogue reeked of a slightly evolved version of classic Cold War red-baiting.

Red-baiting never totally died after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It frequently pops up in American politics, especially during election years. However, it has has become more prominent this cycle. “The degree to which Russia has taken center stage in the U.S. presidential election hasn’t been seen since the height of the Cold War,” Matthew Rojansky writes in a editorial for Foreign Policy.

In addition to accusing Russian operatives of perpetrating the DNC hack, Clinton has also called Putin a “bully” while on the campaign trail and implored world leaders to stand up to him for his actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers. Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects. Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess. — David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, “As Democrats Gather, a Russian Subplot Raises Intrigue“, The New York Times, 24.07.2016.

Although Clinton was one of the architects of the efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations early in her tenure as Secretary of State, those efforts had soured by 2012 and Clinton and other politicians and officials began openly criticizing Moscow once again. In a 2014 speech at the University of California, Clinton went so far as to compare Putin to Adolf Hitler after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea. “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s,” Clinton said. “Hitler kept saying: ‘They’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people.’ And that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.” While Russia’s actions were worthy of rebuke, the Hitler comparison was clearly off the mark and attracted considerable criticism.

These types of barbs are par for the course in U.S.-Russia relations, but the DNC hacks marked a turning point in the rhetoric, one in which both sides are now once again talking about direct conflict with one another.

Leaders In The U.S., Russia, And China Are Openly Talking About War — And Even Hinting At Nuclear War
In a speech to the American Legion’s national convention on August 31, Clinton openly threatened war, or at least “serious military responses,” against Russia and China for any future cyberattacks either of the countries may perpetrate. “Russia’s hacked into a lot of things. China’s hacked into a lot of things. Russia even hacked into the Democratic National Committee, maybe even some state election systems,” Clinton said at the convention. “As President, I will make it clear, that the United States will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic, and military responses.”

The fact that the potential future president of the United States threatened military responses against two of the most powerful nations in the world should have attracted considerable media attention, but is somehow fell under the radar of American politics as observers focused more on Trump’s cartoonish foreign policy faux pas.

While Clinton’s and Obama’s comments may have been accusatory and belligerent from Russia’s perspective, Putin has been expressing a much darker, apocalyptic view of relations between Russia and the West. In a press conference held in early July, Putin advised Western journalists that if the U.S. continued with its policy of installing NATO missile defense system sites in countries that share boarders with Russia then a large-scale global conflict was imminent. He mentioned that Romania and Poland, specifically, could become targets for Russia.

From Russia’s perspective the missile defense system poses two threats. Putin argued that the missiles could easily be converted from defensive to offensive purposes and, perhaps more importantly, that they diminish or potentially even nullify Russia’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile threat to the United States and other potential enemies, thus eliminating the balance of power achieved by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. His comments centered on the the U.S. withdrawal from 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under then-President George W. Bush.

It is only you that they [the governments of the U.S. and other Western states] tell tall-tales to, and you spread them to the citizens of your countries. Your people, in turn, do not feel a sense of the impending danger — this is what worries me. How can you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction? That’s the problem. Meanwhile they pretend that nothing’s going on… I don’t know how to get through to you anymore. — Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference held in early July, 2016.

In video of the press conference Putin’s typical bravado eludes him. Instead, he comes across as bewildered, crestfallen, and even scared. He ended his comments on an even more somber note:

From what I can see we are in grave danger… I don’t know how this is all going to end. What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves… But this is simply our response to your actions. Is it not obvious that I must guarantee the safety of our people? And not only that, but we must attempt to achieve the necessary balance of power… It was precisely this balance of power that guaranteed the safety of humanity from major global conflict over the past 70 years. It was a blessing rooted in a ‘mutual threat,’ but this mutual threat is what guaranteed mutual peace, on a global scale over the decades. How they could so easily tear it down, I simply do not know. I think this is gravely dangerous. I don’t only think that — I’m assured of it. — Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference held in early July, 2016.

Putin is not the only one growing anxious over the prospects of large-scale global conflict. A growing number of political and security analysts within Russia feel that the U.S. and NATO (its missile defense system in particular) pose an existential threat to Russia. “Of course they will say that all [the bloc’s] tanks in Estonia and Latvia, as well as war games are not meant to counter us, but instead serve to protect [the alliance] against Daesh [Islamic State] or some other terrorist group,” Political analyst Georgy Fyodorov told Radio Sputnik. “But we should have no illusions. All military and deterrent actions performed close to our borders are carried out primarily against us.” Defense analyst Igor Korotchenko echoed Fydorov’s sentiments: “Washington’s missile defense system is directed against Russia. euro-missile-defenseIts main goal is to offset our nuclear capabilities. The United States will invest in sea-based missile defense systems in the Baltic and the Black Seas. Then Washington will be able to blackmail Moscow.”

If the Russians seriously feel as threatened as they claim, if it’s not just a chess move of diplomatic theater, that’s not a good thing. Desperate nations act desperately, making conflict all the more likely. “If Clinton doubles down on U.S. involvement in proxy conflicts over Syria and Ukraine, as her comments on the campaign trail have suggested,” Rojansky writes in the Foreign Policy piece, “the Russians are almost certain to respond in kind, and direct U.S.-Russia confrontation could spiral quickly out of either side’s control.”

China Could Be The Wild Card In A Renewed Cold War
There have obviously been some major geopolitical changes in the past 25 years. Russia is not nearly as economically, militarily, or strategically powerful without it’s former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact satellites. Russia is still a formidable military force, but the U.S. and NATO would have a clear advantage. It would be clumsy to speculate at length on how a renewed “Cold War” would play out beyond that. There are, however, new factors that are worthy of discussion, and China is arguably the biggest of those factors. China looks like they’re ready to play ball instead of sitting on the sidelines this time. And they’re on Russia’s team, sort of.

It’s not entirely fair to say that China sat out the Cold War, but China did play a relatively passive role considering it’s size, it’s communist government, and its (sometimes friendly) relationship with the Soviet Union. For much of the 20th century China tended to keep its military and foreign ambitions close to home, remaining somewhat isolationist and focused on the internal strife and struggles it faced. It’s greatest involvement in foreign conflict came when it sent hundreds of thousands of troops pouring into North Korea to push back South Korean, U.S., and allied forces to prevent the U.S. from establishing a toehold on its doorstep.

In 1989 Beijing acknowledged it also sent over 300,000 troops to fight alongside the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, another conflict taking place right across China’s borders.

Other than those involvements, China’s reclamation of Tibet in 1951 and long-running dispute with Chiang Kai-shek’s exiled government in Taiwan, were the greatest points of contention between China and the U.S.

But China is changing, and so is it’s military and foreign policy. In 2013 China sent infantry units to serve in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. It was the first overseas deployment of Chinese combat troops in a peacekeeping role. China has since deployed peacekeepers to Liberia and Sudan as well.

Chinese UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.

Chinese UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.

In March, it was announced that China would be opening it’s first overseas military base in Djoubti, on the Horn of Africa. The base will house 4,500 troops and support staff dedicated to counter-terrorism operations in the region. The opening of the base marks the first permanent foreign troop deployment by China.

There have also been reports that China plans to send troops to the Balochistan region of Pakistan to help the 15,000 Pakistani soldiers stationed there protect the 3,000-km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has invested heavily in the $46 billion CPEC project, which will include a highway running from Kashgar in China to Gwadar in Balochistan, a southwestern district of Pakistan with a lengthy coast on the Persian Gulf. Balochistan is in the midst of both an indigenous uprising led by Baloch separatists and a Taliban insurgency. Chinese nationals working on CPEC have been targeted by both groups.

Map of the The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Map of the The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

A major expansion of the port at Gwadar is also part of the project, and that’s the larger concern for the U.S. “The massive project is about more than simple trade — its backers hope that once finished, it will bolster Pakistan’s economy and potentially give China’s navy access to the Indian Ocean,” Wajahat S. Khan wrote for NBC News in May. “The plan would also strengthen both countries’ positions versus India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy and China’s strategic rival, and hedge against U.S. influence in the region.”

Pakistan and China have declared themselves “all-weather friends” as CPEK has increased their economic and military ties. Pakistan accounts for more than a third of Chinese weapons sales. In recent months Pakistan and China have conducted joint military exercises in Pakistan, China, and, for the first time, in the East China Sea, Reuters reports.

In July, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Pakistani border police carried out joint patrols along their shared border for the first time. The patrols took place near the Kashmir region, an area claimed by both India and Pakistan.

South China Sea Remains A Potential Flash-Point
In a more curious development, China has undertaken huge dredging and construction projects to expand or create several small islands in the South China Sea so that the islands can support military outposts and airfields.

China dug deep channels to provide access to these outposts and also created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors, and constructed new berthing areas to allow larger ships to access the bases, according to the Pentagon’s annual “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” report released in May.

The three largest outposts will have airfields with 9,800-feet-long runways (approximately 3 km), long enough to allow for the take off and landing of advanced fighter and bomber aircraft, the report said.

Fiery Cross Reef being fortified by the People’s Republic of China in 2015/16.
Left: March 2015 / Right: May 2016

The South China Sea is the site of ongoing territorial disputes between China and several other nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. and China have repeatedly butted heads over the dispute on the diplomatic front.

The Pentagon has interpreted China’s military build up in the South China Sea as an indication that China intends to take a more active and assertive role in global affairs. “China continues to invest in military programs and weapons designed to improve power projection, anti-access area denial and operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space and the electromagnetic spectrum,” Abraham Denmark, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, said when the Department of Defense’s report on China was released.

China took umbrage at Denmark’s comments and essence of the report. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun expressed “strong dissatisfaction” and “firm opposition” to the Pentagon report, which he argued “misrepresented China’s military development,” according to the government-run Xinhua News Agency. “China follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. Moves such as deepening military reforms and the military build-up are aimed at maintaining sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing China’s peaceful development,” Yang said, adding “the U.S. side has always been suspicious.”

Even if China’s new military initiatives are strictly “defensive in nature,” there is still cause for considerable concern.

Russia And China Strengthen Military Ties As China Warns It Is Ready To Battle The U.S.
China and Russia “vowed to strengthen global strategic stability” in a joint statement signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 25 during Putin’s visit to Beijing, Xinhua reported.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Middle of September, Russian and Chinese forces began joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. The eight-day exercises will include live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defensive and offensive exercises, Chinese navy spokesperson Liang Yang said in a report from Xinhua. Chinese and Russian surface ships, submarines, planes, helicopters, and amphibious armored vehicles will be used in the exercises.

China and Russia have held six joint naval exercises since 2005. The increased military collaboration is due in part to China feeling increasingly threatened by the U.S. and NATO over the South China Sea dispute. Reports from official government news agencies suggest that the People’s Republic is indeed preparing for potential conflict. “China should speed up building its military capabilities of strategic deterrence,” reads a July editorial from the Global Times, a publication run by the Chinese government. “Even though China cannot keep up with the US militarily in the short-term, it should be able to let the US pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force.”

The Global Times editorial alternated from insisting on China’s peaceful intentions to veiled threats against the United States. “China is a peace-loving country and deals with foreign relations with discretion, but it won’t flinch if the US and its small clique keep encroaching on its interests on its doorstep,” it continued. “China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks, but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations.”

The underlying message of China’s actions and statements regarding the South China Sea, as well as its increased military and economic ties to Russia, could be summed up as: China is ready to fight if it has to, and Russia is on its side. The strength of any commitments of mutual defense between Russia and China remain questionable. Syria, of course, could prove to be the testing ground for how the U.S., Russia, and China navigate their rivalries and alliances in a theoretical new Cold War.

In August, Beijing and Damascus agreed to allow China to provide humanitarian aid in Syria and to potentially start training Syrian troops. This would put China and the U.S. on opposing sides in what has become one of the most complicated and convoluted conflicts in recent history. China, along with Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran, would be training the soldiers of the Syrian Armed Forces, who are fighting against the Free Syrian Army, a U.S. ally.

Again, China and the U.S. were on opposite sides of the line during the Vietnam and Korean wars, but both of those conflicts were on China’s borders. Syria is in another region of the world. If China’s actions there — as well as in Pakistan, the South China Sea, and Africa — are any indication, we are looking at an emboldened and more ambitious China, one whose foreign policy objectives extend well beyond its borders.

When considered in light of Russia becoming increasingly “adventuresome,” and with a possible (albeit undoubtedly tenuous) military alliance between Russia and China thrown in the mix, a potential renewal of Cold War animosities becomes not only probable but also deeply unsettling.

This entry was posted in China, Darien Cavanaugh, English, Russia, Security Policy.

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