We are entering a new strategic era which will have large and lasting effects for the international and domestic policy of the United States.
The foremost indicator of this change is Russia's decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war in support of the Damascus government. This is the first significant "out of area" military intervention by Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union.
While many Western commentators characterize recent Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria as 'resurgent aggression', a more accurate assessment is that Russian leadership is seeking to halt that country's long post-Soviet decline in global influence by addressing perceived national security deficits. Russia seeks to shore up its flanks against NATO expansion in its near-abroad (Ukraine) and protect its Mediterranean Middle East interests represented by its long-time Syrian ally and, in particular, the naval base at Tartus (and, fifty kilometers to the north, the new tactical air base at Latakia.)
At the same time China has literally been building-out its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. Pacific forces have responded with several demonstrations (by air and by sea) of disrespect of these sovereign claims by China. In the last week of January Admiral Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that his forces would do more 'freedom of navigation' operations in the South China Sea. Two days later the the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within twelve nautical miles of Triton Island, claimed by China, in the Paracel chain. These demonstrations of U.S. power have ratcheted up tensions with China without in any way resolving the issues of competing sovereign claims.
A critical context of these recent tensions is renewed Chinese national confidence and pride rising in the face of seventy years of dominating presence by the US Navy in the Pacific, effectively reaching to the coasts of China.
Despite the fact that Russia has recently been militarily assertive in words and deeds, the most significant and dangerous strategic development is that involving China. The reason for this is quite straightforward: Russia is presently a relatively weak state and will likely be a declining power for years to come. China, of course, is a rising economic and military power (although its military strength lags its economic advance by large measure.)
The world is moving from the historically brief moment of American-dominated unipolarity following the collapse of the Soviet Union to a system characterized by greater multipolarity -- with the distinct possibility of emergent bipolarity, as characterized the post-World War II Cold War.
During the Ukraine crisis of 2014 there was much talk in the news and opinion media of "a new Cold War with Russia." This talk is quieter at the moment, diverted, as much of the world is, by ISIS in the Middle East. Yet, it is easy to see attention to "a new Cold War" returning, especially if relations with China become more conflictual.
If that happens, we are still a decade or more away from a new bipolarity becoming the predominant characteristic of the international system. There is still time to construct something better than a bipolar world characterized by new Cold War.
The first Cold War was costly for the world, diverting a least one percent of global economic activity to military capabilities particular to that conflict. Nor was the Cold War in any real sense a sort of tense peace. During its course more than 30 million people died in some thirty-five peripheral wars many of which were encouraged and provisioned by the main protagonists. A significant portion of the creative energies of several generations was rallied to the cause, while induced fears of the enemy took a deep psychic toll on all involved, especially children.
We can do much better than allow an encore.
Recognizing the reality that China is a rising power, we must do everything we can to build partnership, not confrontation, with China. U.S. and allied interests can best be met by helping to construct an inclusive common East Asian regional security and economic framework -- the opposite of constructing cold war. It will not be easy to create this framework for peaceful relations. It will require imagination, persistence and focused attention - but that is what our task should be - before it is too late.
If leaders in the United States and China let structural factors drive these two great nations to war, they will not be able to hide behind a cloak of inevitability. Those who don't learn from past successes and failures to find a better way forward will have no one to blame but themselves.
A cold war framework for our relations with China, Russia and any other powers that might eventually align with them will almost certainly result in the addition of $200 to 300 billion in annual U.S. security expenditures. It would also very significantly divert the energies of Americans from many social and environmental goals. The U.S. will end up deferring domestic investments needed to sustain its economic strength.
Nations wise enough to opt out of cold war with China will emerge winners, while those that sign on to the struggle will reap decline and perhaps the whirlwind of war.