The Dawn of the Second Cold War


The Progressive magazine, May 2001


The U.S. face-off with China over the collision of a Chinese F-8 fighter and a U.S. spy plane may be a sign of things to come, but it sure seemed like a blast from the past.

This is Gary Powers and his U-2 all over again. Except this time, the Cold War enemy is China. But Russia may not be left out. U.S. relations with Moscow are also in a time warp, as the recent spy scandal and general chill indicate.

The Bush Administration is so full of bluster and belligerence that it might start a Cold War with both Russia and China at the same time. Old Cold Warriors never die, they just grab power in Washington, and that's what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are doing. George W. is just their nervous little messenger boy.

But he's delivering a dangerous message.

The contretemps over the plane crash must be seen in the context of worsening U.S. relations with China over the last year. The causes: Star Wars, U.S. aid for Taiwan, and a reorientation of military strategy by both Washington and Beijing.

Bush's eagerness to expand and deploy nuclear missile defense threatens China's national security. Today, China has only twenty nuclear missiles that can hit the United States. Beijing views this small arsenal as a deterrent against attack by the United States. But if Bush deploys the shield, China would feel vulnerable. Even if the shield were not 100 percent effective, China could no longer have a reliable deterrent. Especially because the United States could use Star Wars not as missile defense but as missile offense: as an integral part of a first-strike attack. If the United States wanted to attack China, it would launch a first strike to destroy as many of China's stockpiled weapons as it could find. Then the missile defense system could knock down almost all of the rest. Since China has so few to start with, missile defense would enable the United States to attack China with impunity.

"We have no intention of being the innocent party. We want to be the aggressor," says Robert Bowman, president of the Institute for Space and Security Studies, based in Melbourne Beach, Florida. Bowman was director of advanced space programs development for the Air Force during the Ford and Carter Administrations. "Star Wars has nothing to do with defense. It's about maintaining absolute military superiority by developing new offensive weapons in the guise of defense."

China's military experts are keenly aware of this. "What China worries about is losing its deterrent capability," Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Qinghua University, told The New York Times in January. "The United States says this is a defensive system, but everyone knows it will be used to strengthen your offensive capability. It protects your troops so you can attack any time without fear of retribution."

Star Wars ties directly into U.S. policy toward Taiwan. "Some missile defense advocates," a February article in The Wall Street Journal said, "see China as the real threat. Their biggest fear isn't of a direct attack but of nuclear blackmail, in which China might try to deter the U.S. from coming to the defense of Taiwan by threatening to attack American cities." (In a related story ten days earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported that "the dash for missile defense profits is on.")

China has about 300 short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan. It is using them to pressure the island to reintegrate with the mainland. To protect itself, Taiwan wants the United States to sell it the Aegis radar system. This system could relay the coordinates of the incoming missiles to Taiwanese defenses that, at least in theory, could shoot them down. The U.S. Navy has recommended that Bush offer the Aegis to Taiwan. The Navy also wants Taiwan to get new submarines and a destroyer from Washington. China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, would interpret the sale of these weapons as gross interference in its affairs.

But Republican hardliners don't care about that. Last year, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, accused the Clinton Administration of "appeasement" on China. He said the United States should stand up to the "bullies" in Beijing and "make clear that threats to a free, democratic people will be met with the force required to deter and, if necessary, confront aggression," according to The Washington Post.

In February, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld defended Star Wars, especially in the context of China and Taiwan. "If some country decided it wanted to be aggressive to its neighbors and acquire additional territory by force, then having a missile defense system is not a bad idea," he said.

Rumsfeld is undertaking a full-scale review of the Pentagon's strategic planning, and, according to The Washington Post, that review has concluded that "the Pacific Ocean is the most likely theater of future major U.S. military operations, as China becomes more powerful and Russia less so."

For its part, China recognizes that the United States is a potential enemy. Its military budget is about $40 billion compared to the $310 billion budget of the United States, so it has a lot to fear, not the least being the thousands of nuclear weapons Washington has at its disposal.

"China's public view of the United States has changed quite seriously since 1998," Shen Dingli, an arms control export at Fudan University in Shanghai, told The Washington Post in November. "The U.S. has been painted as a threat to Asian-Pacific security. We've never said it so bluntly before.... I think China is more clearly preparing for a major clash with the United States."

A Chinese defense policy paper issued in October denounced the United States for "hegemonism and power politics," AP reported. The policy paper said, "China will have to enhance its capability to defend its sovereignty and security by military means."

It's already begun to do so. On March 6, China's finance minister announced that military spending was going to increase this year by 17.7 percent, its biggest expansion in twenty years, according to The Washington Post. The increase is designed primarily to boost the wages of military personnel, but China has a strong incentive to accelerate its spending on nuclear weapons.

If Bush persists with Star Wars, China will be under enormous pressure to greatly expand its nuclear arsenal. If having twenty nuclear weapons is not a deterrent to the United States, China might very well conclude that it needs 200 of them.

And once China builds more nuclear weapons, India will feel threatened and would be under pressure to accelerate its nuclear program. Then Pakistan, too, would feel obliged to follow suit. That is how the next nuclear arms race may develop. As a result, the continent of Asia, with more than half the world's population, would be in grave peril.

Then there's Russia. In the early days of the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at Moscow.

"Russia is an active proliferator," he said in March. "It has been providing countries with assistance in these areas in a way that complicates the problem for the United States and Western Europe."

His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has made even more provocative remarks. "These people seem to be willing to sell anything to anyone for money," Wolfowitz said, according to The New York Times. "My view is that they have to be confronted with a choice." The Russians "can't expect to do billions of dollars worth of business and aid and all that with the United States and its allies" while at the same time selling "obnoxious stuff that threatens our people and our pilots and our sailors."

The Russians, understandably, were not too keen on this scolding. They denounced the "openly confrontational statements."

But perhaps as galling to the Russians is the Bush Administration's disdain. It seems content to treat Russia as a fading player. "The Administration is said to be reviewing whether to continue a policy of high-level engagement and cooperation with Russia, or to downgrade the relationship to reflect Russia's diminished status and to show disapproval of Russia's opposition to American policy initiatives in missile defense and nonproliferation," the Times noted.

Russia has been anxious to reduce the number of its nuclear weapons, but if Bush insists on Star Wars, it might have to reconsider. That certainly wouldn't be in our interest, but it appears not to trouble the Bush folks.

And in a move that is almost baffling, the Bush Administration has decided to reconsider the wisdom of spending $760 million a year to help the Russians dismantle "former Soviet nuclear, biological, and chemical complexes," as well as help Russia dispose of hazardous nuclear waste, the Times noted.

Bush's advisers "are more comfortable operating in a Cold War environment," says William Hartung of the World Policy Institute. "They're going to give it to us whether we need it or not."

The world was lucky to get out of the First Cold War alive. Now to see a callow President bumbling into the Second Cold War is enough to rattle the nerves.

The last time the air chilled so noticeably was when Ronald Reagan came to power. His bellicosity galvanized the peace movement. We're hoping that Bush's does the same. A revitalized mass opposition to warmaking is what it will take to rein in Bush and his baying dogs.

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