Published: 14:59, January 19, 2024 | Updated: 15:00, January 19, 2024
World cannot afford new Cold War
By David Cottam

West must stop demonizing China and focus on need for greater cooperation amid climate crisis

There has been much speculation in Western media about whether a new Cold War is imminent or has actually started. If either interpretation is correct, it is a depressing reminder that the lessons of history are rarely learned.

The original Cold War, between the West and the Soviet Union, lasted for over 40 years and was marked by a constant state of propaganda, demonization, suspicion, nuclear proliferation and fear on both sides of the ideological divide.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and East-West relations were normalized, the irrationality of the Cold War era was laid bare for everyone to see. Travel, trade and cultural links replaced the previously ingrained hostility, and the truth dawned on both sides of the “Iron Curtain” that people (as opposed to governments) are fundamentally the same everywhere and that much more unites us than divides us.

A generation later, this lesson seems to have been forgotten, with the inevitability of a new Cold War being constantly talked up in the West and in the United States in particular. Propaganda and demonization are once again in the ascendancy, but this time with China replacing the former Soviet Union as the West’s nemesis. According to a Pew Research Center survey in March last year, 83 percent of US adults surveyed had negative views about China, and 44 percent saw China as an enemy of the US.

This is not surprising, given the constant drip feed of anti-China rhetoric from US politicians and journalists. Attacks on Chinese policies and actions appear in the West on an almost daily basis. Favorite targets for condemnation are China’s growing technological power, allegations of human rights abuses, policies in the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative, US-China trade imbalances, tensions over Taiwan, and even Chinese efforts to mediate peace in Ukraine.

China’s motives are invariably portrayed in the US as being sinister, even when Beijing is attempting to broker peace. Given this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the average American views China negatively and that talk of a new Cold War is pervasive.

However, there is a glimmer of hope that the Cold War mentality can be reversed in the future. The findings of the Pew Research Center show that younger Americans who were surveyed tended to have more positive views of China, were more open to opportunities for engagement and cooperation, and favored multilateralism over unilateralism. 

This encouraging finding chimes with the views of young people everywhere that international rivalries and Cold War mentalities are not only backward-looking and destructive, but detract from the 

No 1 priority of worldwide cooperation to tackle the growing threats posed by climate change.

Climate change is clearly the most pressing problem faced by the world and requires all countries to unite and cooperate in addressing it. Rather than focusing on a new Cold War rhetoric, politicians and journalists everywhere should spread the vital message that our collective future requires not just putting an end to Cold War politics, not just peacefully coexisting, but actively cooperating across all continents and ideologies.

If we need reminding of the urgency of international cooperation on climate change, we only have to look at the big news stories. Record-breaking temperatures, horrendous wildfires and floods, droughts, warming seas and melting ice caps were all in the headlines during the summer last year.

All countries are aware of the problem and the need to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. China, the US and the European Union have all made good progress in this direction, but much more needs to be done. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that unless more urgent action is taken on carbon emissions, the world will pass a key threshold within the next 10 years, with dire and irreversible consequences for future generations.

If we are to avoid such a catastrophe, all available resources need to be deployed. A huge step in this direction would be for the world’s two most powerful countries and largest economies, the US and China, to abandon Cold War rhetoric and posturing, agree to reduce the enormous sums spent on the military, and cooperate in diverting the hundreds of billions of dollars so saved into a concerted effort to slow or even reverse global warming.

Young people are clearly the ones most at risk from global warming. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the young people surveyed in the US were more positive about China and more in favor of multilateral cooperation than older Americans. I am sure that such sentiments would be replicated among young people worldwide. It is surely the duty of older generations to acknowledge this wisdom of youth and the morality of their position. Cold War warriors are now a dangerous anachronism. What is needed more than ever is for the US and China to lead the world by uniting as climate warriors.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.