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Why aren’t China and the US more afraid of war?

In Chinese diplomacy Accusing foreign powers of a “Cold War mentality” is an insult to end the debate. Such contempt is unfair to the original Cold War. In that confrontation, the United States and its allies sought to defeat and subvert the Soviet Union and its satellite states in every domain beyond direct superpower conflict. The resulting rivalry is horrific, often irrational, and features shameful behavior on both sides. But on certain occasions — the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, for example — the prospect of nuclear annihilation inspired rare seriousness among leaders on both sides.

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Sino-American relations are increasingly shaped by some of the worst aspects of the first Cold War. By default, the other party’s motives are assumed to be malicious. Flag-waving rhetoric and contradictory depictions of reality make the dispute intractable. Just this week, a foreign ministry spokesman suggested in Beijing that covid-19 was brewed by US military researchers, rebutting the US government’s assessment that the pandemic may have started with a leak in a Chinese laboratory. The build-up of arms once again threatens the balance of deterrence on both sides. In recent years, Chinese pilots have recklessly approached U.S. surveillance planes in international airspace near China, risking a mid-air collision. But this time, the (occasionally) redeeming seriousness of the US-Soviet standoff was missing.

Sino-American rivalry risks becoming a superficial, willful imitation of the Cold War. Too many American politicians view every interaction with China as a threat and an opportunity to demonstrate patriotic resolve. Their rants are often unfair and make it harder to focus on important challenges. In Beijing, Communist Party leaders invoke principles that helped keep a precarious peace in the darkest days of the 1960s or 1970s, but only for superficial and selfish ends. Take, for example, the concept of “absolute security.” A proposal for a new security architecture by China’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, has revived old debates about the bleak form of security that arises when rival nuclear powers believe war will lead to mutual destruction. Mr. Xi Jinping solemnly stated: “No country should seek its own absolute security at the expense of the security of other countries.” But Xi Jinping has repurposed this language and used it to challenge the US-led defense alliance, especially in the Asia. Defense treaties, in his words, were an unstable hangover from the Cold War because they sought absolute “security for one or a few countries while leaving others insecure”. This is sophistry, a fancy way of saying that China doesn’t like it when its neighbors try to build defenses against it.More recently, Chinese officials have invoked the same principle to blame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on NATO enlarge.

Overwhelmed by these distorted echoes of the Soviet era, Chase turned to a Cold War diplomat veteran for guidance. Thomas Pickering, 91, served as an arms control negotiator in the Kennedy administration and later as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Moscow, among other positions. He recalls obstacles to peacemaking that have parallels in modern China. A secret involving the Soviet Army, whose commanders developed weapons and deterrence doctrines that Soviet civilian diplomats “almost knew nothing about,” forcing Americans to explain “the full repertoire of Soviet weapons as we understand them.” Today, Chinese diplomats appear to be similarly on the sidelines. People in Washington were taken aback when a spy balloon flew over the United States in February.When asked about the People’s Liberation Army (the People’s Liberation Army) building nuclear weapons at an alarming rate, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with empty words.

Mr Pickering sees lessons for the US and China from the crisis decades ago. He recalls the Cold War crises triggered by unstable new technologies, such as anti-missile defense, that seemed to overturn the harsh logic of nuclear deterrence. Some of these shocking events ended in ambitious arms control agreements. Others are addressed by building trust protocols and increasing transparency. U.S. and Soviet officials installed emergency hotlines. Sometimes rival militaries send officers to count each other’s warheads or observe military exercises. In each case, “fear overcame the penchant for absolute secrecy,” Mr Pickering said. He believed that real crisis management involved listening and speaking, and he praised John F. Kennedy for urging Americans to examine provocative Soviet propaganda to see that “even the Soviets might have legitimate concerns.” Progress involves many difficult steps. “At the same time, the fear index was very high,” he recalls. He came up with a convincing final idea. China and the United States are caught up in superficial insults and threats, in part because they have not lived through a truly dire crisis.

China’s growing tolerance for risk

Zhang Tuosheng is a former instructor People’s Liberation ArmyThe military academy in Beijing is now a think tank in Beijing. He shares Mr Pickering’s concern that the US and China are not managing the crisis with enough urgency. Alas, he saw a gap in understanding between the two countries. The U.S. is talking about flying and sailing safely near China, and the rules of warfare for advanced weapons. China, by contrast, has accused the United States of threatening its national security by invading its backyard or escalating ties with Taiwan. In his account, China believes that the United States first created the crisis and then demanded better management of it.

Zhao Tong, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said China was consciously accepting higher tensions and short-term risks. He said that in the eyes of the Chinese, the United States is an aggressor. If they were really afraid of disaster, they would have retreated by now. Therefore, China believes that scaring the United States more will reduce long-term risks.

Veterans of the early Cold War shuddered at such reckless logic because they remembered that terror was a restrained irritant. In the contest between China and the United States, no fear is the most terrible thing.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Chinese public has had enough, but not on brink of revolt (February 23)
China is losing Taiwan’s hearts and minds (February 16)
Lessons From China’s Spy Balloons (February 7)

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