America vs. Russia and China: Welcome to Cold War II

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill

The Second Cold War is a rematch among the same teams.

May-June 2018

The United States has announced it will take new military and economic measures to retaliate against Russia’s deployment of a new missile that, according to Washington, violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which eliminated both cruise and ballistic missiles from Europe. Meanwhile, some in Washington believe the INF treaty unnecessarily ties the hands of the American military. Republican hawks saw to it that Congress appropriated $58 million in the 2018 defense budget for the development of land-based cruise missiles. In December 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted, “Let it be an arms race,” following on an earlier tweet in which he declared that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” In turn, during an annual address this March, Putin displayed an animated video of hypersonic, nuclear-capable missiles raining down on what appeared to be the state of Florida.

Cold War II is also underway in the realms of espionage and sabotage. According to a February 2017 report by the U.S. Defense Science Board, the United States is threatened by cyberattacks from Russia and China, as well as Iran and North Korea. The United States claims that hackers associated with the Chinese government have stolen intellectual property to help Chinese firms. H. R. McMaster, then Trump’s national security adviser, announced in February in Munich that it is now “incontrovertible” that Moscow interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. In addition, according to the United States, foreign nations have planted malware in computer networks that can affect the U.S. electric grid. One form of malware, “BlackEnergy,” it is claimed, originated with Russia’s government and was used to attack the electric grid in Ukraine.

For its part, the United States has its own growing cyberwar capability. According to the New York Times, the United States has successfully hacked North Korean missiles, causing high rates of failure. Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm, is alleged to have been created by a joint U.S.-Israeli project to cripple Iran’s nuclear centrifuge program.

Like Cold War I, Cold War II involves a space race—or rather, space races. While both the United States and China talk about ambitious projects like sending astronauts back to the moon or Mars, the space race in Cold War II is being driven by military considerations. In 2007, China demonstrated its antisatellite capability by destroying one of its own satellites, in a test of a kind stopped by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s because of the damage done by debris clouds. In summer 2017, China tested an ultrasecure spy satellite relying on the phenomenon of “quantum entanglement” between the satellite and ground stations, leapfrogging the United States in this branch of technology. In order to avoid reliance on the U.S.-created Global Positioning System, China has created its own rival global satellite navigation system, BeiDou. Meanwhile, in 2013, Congress passed a law prohibiting NASA funds from being used to collaborate with China in any way.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the United States has ceded leadership in manned spaceflight to Russia, which has continued to send cosmonauts to the International Space Station. Lacking any current manned spaceflight capability, the United States has been reduced to having its astronauts hitch rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets. Even more embarrassing, the Pentagon will rely on Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites for years to come, while funding the development of American-built alternatives by the United Launch Alliance, a Boeing–Lockheed Martin joint venture, and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

IN COLD War II, rival trade blocs complement rival military alliances. Contrary to a widespread misconception, the United States began taking a harder line toward China before the election of Donald Trump, during the Obama administration. For example, Obama backed twenty-three trade-enforcement challenges at the World Trade Organization (WTO)—fourteen of them targeted at China.

The Obama administration portrayed its trade policy in explicitly anti-Chinese terms. This was the headline in Newsweek on October 12, 2015: “If the U.S. and Europe Don’t Agree on Trade Pact, China Wins.” According to the author, Judy Dempsey:

“Both the TTIP and TPP are about the United States building alliances—across the Atlantic and across the Pacific to deal with China. . . . In short, both pacts are seen as competition between the United States and China for setting the trading rules of the 21st century.”

In a February 15, 2016 message to the White House email list, President Obama candidly treated the TPP as an anti-Chinese measure in a zero-sum rivalry for influence over global trade rules: