A new Cold War: What does it look like?

by Chris Zappone

Gone is the geographical certainty of the historical Cold War. The Iron Curtain has fallen. Need to go to Russia? Your flight awaits. Have business in China? Go right ahead.

And yet competing interests between the US, Russia and China today are becoming clearer by the hour. 

Two articles point to examples of what this a Cold War could look like. Both authors argue for an asymmetrical response to recent military actions by both Russia and China.

In the Diplomat piece, Zachary Keck argues that economic sanctions and symbolic votes at the UN are ineffective toward Russia, in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Keck believes the US should strategically leak embarrassing information on Russian corruption to international reporters and/ or release embarrassing information online meant to erode Putin’s standing within Russia.

Whatever medium the West used to publish the information, this policy would appropriately target what Putin holds most dear—his grip on power—in a way that can effectively undermine it. It would also be fairly cheap. The larger principle should be kept in mind for future crises—namely, the U.S. and the West don’t have to respond to challenges on the terms set by the countries challenging them.”  

Australian analyst Peter Layton, discussing what he concludes is China’s success in driving its neighbors from their South China Sea territories, proposes a similar strategy for China. Rather than outside powers going head-to-head with China in maritime contests in which China enjoys an advantage, Layton proposes a strategy that plays “on China’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities…ideally seek[ing] to exploit weak points.”

What does that look like? Essentially, taking actions that stir up China’s anxieties about “perceived interference in its internal affairs.”

Payton writes:  

 “The Chinese Communist Party seems to believe it is particularly vulnerable to outside intrusions in its domestic politics,” writes Layton. “Some new strategy might be able to play off such fears and create a perceived linkage between future Chinese actions over the disputed islands and external prying into Chinese domestic politics and internal matters.”

Layton cautions against a broad-brush approach.

In fact, the Chinese strategy to its foreign policy challenges is often to cultivate ambiguity and uncertainty on the part of its rivals. For outside nations to reverse engineer this tactic, the outcome could be lots of ambiguity and uncertainty sloshing around international relations. Layton urges that outside powers make their message clear.

But interpretations could vary within China – with its many internal division – and lead to critical international misunderstandings.

And yet, just like the East and West settled into a geopolitical balance during the Cold War with rules and protocols and understandings to help govern rivals’ behavior, it’s not far-fetched to believe the same thing would eventually emerge.

This kind of linkage would be a real product of the globalized age. Any solace people, organizations and business took from geography during the historical Cold War – i.e. distance from contested borders, etc – would likely erode somewhat with this new game. The world would become less like a geopolitical chessboard and more like Jenga, perhaps, with one piece sitting atop another, in a fragile balance.