In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War

By Wu Qiang, published: October 12, 2015

“The coming new Cold War will be nothing less than a fight for our own freedom, a conflict in which the free world will be forced to contend with a China that is reverting to a 1984-style totalitarian state.” 


Perhaps Sino-American relations really have reached a turning point: during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent week-long official visit to the United States, his only contact with American President Barack Obama was one state dinner and a single day of talks. Nor did the long-awaited summit – the run-up to which began on September 3, 2015, with a massive military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII – yield any stunning achievements. At press conferences before and after the summit, the discrepancies between the two sides were very much in evidence. Not since Deng Xiaoping’s state visit in 1979 has a China-U.S. summit been marked by such stark differences of opinion.

How serious are these differences of opinion, and how much will they matter in the long run? What impact will they have on the diplomatic assessment of Xi Jinping’s official visit? To answer these questions, we must look to the fundamentals of Sino-American diplomacy.

The Sino-American relationship has long been China’s top diplomatic priority

We know that from 1949 to the present, Sino-American relations have been defined by the efforts of two generations of political strongmen: first Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping. In his later years, Mao Zedong used Kissinger and Nixon’s visit to China as an opening to normalize Sino-American relations and to help China emerge from its Cold War isolation and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

For those in the Communist camp, Sino-American détente was the turning point in a long chain of destabilizing events – the death of Stalin, the 1953 East German uprising, the 1956 Poznań protests in Poland, Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, the Hungarian Uprising, and the “Prague Spring” of 1968 – that threatened to upset the political equilibrium and expose splits within the Communist bloc. All of the achievements of China’s current “reform & opening” [economic liberalization] policies are built upon this political legacy. Deng Xiaoping both inherited and continued Mao’s policies: soon after taking office, Deng made an official visit to the U.S. that inaugurated a “honeymoon period” in Sino-American relations, while at the same time launching a border war with Vietnam and consolidating his political power at home.

The technocratic leaders who succeeded Deng Xiaoping have invariably made the Sino-American relationship their main diplomatic priority: focusing on issues such as access to American markets, China’s most-favored-nation trading status, and 21st century counter-terrorism operations has allowed them to maintain stability, promote economic development and ensure uncontested political dominance at home. Despite some ups and downs, both sides have employed active diplomacy to defuse conflicts ranging from the minor (the 1999 Yinhe container ship incident and the 1999 Wen Ho Lee case) to the major (the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings, the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 collision of a U.S. Navy spy plane and a PLA jet fighter near Hainan Island), so as not to disrupt the overarching theme of Sino-American cooperation.

The 2015 Sino-American summit: reversing course

On Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S., made three years after he assumed office, something seems to have gone awry. Other than a few agreed-upon topics such as climate change and technical cooperation, there was scant progress in resolving major differences, particularly in the areas of Internet security, South China Sea, and human rights.

Regarding Internet security, although Xi led a large Chinese delegation to Seattle where they spent three days wooing Internet giants, they were unable to mitigate the fundamental differences on Internet security that emerged during bilateral discussions with the White House. Regarding human rights, although Xi Jinping and China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛) personally stepped up by making appearances at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action, where they pledged support for the High-level Roundtable on South-South Cooperation and a women’s poverty alleviation fund, respectively, neither could match up to Hillary Clinton’s one-word rejoinder about China’s hypocrisy on the women’s rights front: “shameless.”

For the first time, a Sino-American summit backed by years of preparation – including an ostentatious September 3 military parade held in Beijing during the run-up to the summit – yielded no strategic consensus, no common ground on which to base strategic cooperation, and no softening of the serious differences of opinion on either side. This is an inauspicious beginning.  For the first time, China’s senior leadership did not exert sufficient personal influence to patch rifts in the Sino-American relationship or to stabilize U.S.-China bilateral cooperation. Even the predictably cautious diplomacy of the Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao era would have been an improvement over this summit, in which Sino-American relations seem to be a back-sliding course since Kissinger’s 1971 visit to China.

In fact, beginning with his policy speech in Seattle, Xi’s diplomatic rhetoric already paved the way for the failure of this summit. His speech was filled with negative syntax, repudiations of fact, refusals to take responsibility, and a generally dismissive attitude toward Sino-American differences of opinion regarding Internet security, navigation rights in the South China Sea, and human rights conflicts. This is the habitual Chinese bureaucratic response to dispute resolution: the only surprise was that it was being applied so cavalierly to the competing core national interests of two major world powers. It seems cut from the same cloth – or at least informed by the same mindset – as the Japanese approach to dealing with similar conflicts before the outbreak of the Pacific War, and it probably carries a similar potential for danger.

The results of the summit were unsurprising: during the post-summit press conference, Obama made no attempt to gloss over the differences between the two sides, and even expressed doubts about Xi’s willingness to resolve those differences. Judging from the response within American political and media circles, both before and after the summit, it is clear that there are enormous differences between the U.S. and China, and that future conflict is all but unavoidable. You would expect the diplomatic corps to have done everything to ensure that Xi Jinping, during his trip to Washington D.C., had the opportunity to speak to the U.S. Congress, to meet face to face with American legislators, and to mitigate and explain his positions on a variety of issues. The fact that it did not happen is a diplomatic failure of the greatest magnitude.

The fact that the diplomatic corps threw so much effort into a largely symbolic speech at the U.N. General Assembly and yet was unable to create a better opportunity to address the more significant challenges of Sino-American diplomacy not only demonstrates the rigidity and timidity of the bureaucracy, it also highlights the ad-hoc nature of President Xi’s foreign policy and his tendency to underestimate the severity of diplomatic disputes.

Internet security: the main battleground in the “New Cold War”

There are two disagreements at the heart of Sino-American diplomacy: one is the issue of the South China Sea; the other is the issue of Internet security. Despite U.S. insistence that it is a disinterested party with a responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and despite China’s denials of any strategic intent in its large-scale program of island construction, the South China Sea dispute is well-trodden geopolitical ground that touches on oil supply, free trade, and the balance of power in Southeast and Northeast Asia. In that “Mediterranean of the Pacific,” that nexus of extraordinarily sensitive overlapping national interests, all of the neighboring Southeast Asian disputants are emerging nation-states whose hyper-nationalist sentiments are, if anything, even stronger than China’s. Given the tense state of affairs in the South China Sea, neither China nor the U.S. would risk any rash action; the more likely path is détente, with both parties exploring channels that would lead to a negotiated solution.

The issue of Internet security and Internet freedom is a thornier problem, however: because it lies outside the customary purview of geopolitics and challenges traditional notions of the nation-state, it is the most explosive and unpredictable element in the future of Sino-U.S. relations.

To put it in slightly different terms, when war broke out in the Caucasus in 2008, some international voices (this author included) called it the beginning of a new Cold War, but not many agreed. Most felt that it was simply a continuation of old-style regional conflict, and that it was a matter of sheer luck that Russian troops managed to pass through the Roki Tunnel without being thoroughly annihilated. It was only after last year’s Ukrainian and Crimean crises that the world seemed to come to its senses at last and resolve to impose multilateral sanctions against Russia.

The small-scale conflicts that we see now are a prelude to a new Cold War characterized by a clash of ideology.

With the small number of world leaders standing beside Xi and Putin on the Tiananmen Square rostrum during the Chinese military parade on September 3rd, it was clear that some kind of new Cold War international alliance had made its appearance. Prior to that, China had already followed in Russia’s footsteps by enacting strict controls on foreign NGOs and the Internet, and stifling civil society and press freedom. All signs seemed to point to the rapid formation of a global bloc opposed to civil society and Internet freedom. Looking back at Xi Jinping’s tenure, his successive overtures toward Africa and Latin America, and his “One Belt, One Road” or “economic Silk Road” initiative, it is not hard to discern a strategy to export and expand the Chinese model of authoritarian control. And Xi’s recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly seemed intent on using the United Nations as a platform from which to entice southern hemisphere nations to join China’s “bloc” in exchange for economic assistance.

Against this backdrop, the old Cold War conflict – “U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.” or “capitalism vs. socialism” – has been replaced by a conflict over Internet security, thus transforming the Internet into a new ideological battleground. Examples include American and Israeli use of a computer virus to attack Iranian nuclear plants, as well as the blackouts that hit the U.S. in 2003 (an investigation into the cause of the blackouts found that after hackers had penetrated the power grid and realized the damage they caused, they posted a Chinese-language message that read “Zao le!” or “Oh shit!”) Other conflicts touch on Internet freedom and freedom of speech, as when the Chinese government launched a series of initiatives to “clean up” the Internet. Almost all of these restrictions on Internet public opinion – such as the arrests and public denunciations of “Big Vs” [opinion leaders whose Chinese micro-blog accounts boast a large number of followers], the crackdown on independent NGOs, the support and training of the “50-cent army” or “little pinks” [paid pro-government or pro-Chinese Communist Party online commentators] – have been incorporated into China’s new draft National Security Law under the broad category of “Internet sovereignty” that continues to exist within an outmoded nation-state framework.

Today, however, the Internet is so highly integrated into the power grid, the Internet of things, and most every aspect of political, economic and social life, that even a small, local error could trigger a cascade of events that in turn cause the collapse of the entire system. Small individual choices can, like the flick of a switch, set off a series of high-frequency, small-scale shocks that eventually trigger larger-scale transformations, such as the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Therefore, the Internet has a dual significance, with implications for both national security and for social revolution. It is imbued with great ideological value, and capable of becoming both a battlefield and a weapon. Simply put, Internet warfare will become the main ground of the new Cold War. This is why, in recent years, both China and the U. S. have spared no effort in developing their cyber-warfare capabilities.

There is no escape from Internet totalitarianism

The Xi-Obama summit’s inability to forge a path toward resolving differences between the two parties signals an intensification of the conflict, but it is not yet clear what shape this conflict will take. A recent article on the Foreign Policy website reveals that the U.S. National Security Agency is constructing a massive new computing center; the sheer size of the center, and the scale of the pumping station needed to cool the facility, may be a concrete emblem of a new Cold War. But U.S. President Obama has recently rejected a proposal to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of an outbreak of cyber warfare or the destruction of this new facility, so perhaps thermonuclear war will not figure in the calculations of a new and quiet Cold War. But if economic and other forms of cooperation and exchange prove insufficient to dispel the most recent and deep-seated ideological divisions – that is, if there ever comes a time when Silicon Valley Internet companies’ market prospects in China are not enough to deter conflict – then the Internet will become the inevitable battleground in a new ideological Cold War.

We have moved beyond the old-fashioned geopolitical “oil- and carbon-based production and consumption model” and into a “silicon-based political order” centered on the transmission of information. For this reason, we may find that freedom and freedom of thought come at a much higher price than ever before. Restricting freedom of thought requires no nuclear weapons or machine guns, only more law enforcement, more Internet police. The coming new Cold War will be nothing less than a fight for our own freedom, a conflict in which the free world will be forced to contend with a China that is reverting to a 1984-style totalitarian state.

When it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian control of the Internet, no one is immune. For example, during China’s “July 9 crackdown” involving large-scale arrests of human rights lawyers, a German-based server of the Telegram instant messaging system [which some say has enabled Chinese human rights lawyers to carry out their work] experienced an unprecedented DDOS attack. The future has already begun, and it may well prove tragic.


吴强 (2)Wu Qiang (吴强) is a Beijing-based political commentator, and until recently, he was a political science professor at Tsinghua University.



Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law, by Mo Zhixu, China Change, October 4, 2015.

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu, April 6, 2013


中文原文《吳強:中美峰會之後可能到來的新冷戰》, translated by China Change.



8 responses to “In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War”

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