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North Korea and Russia: The Only Winners in a U.S.-China Cold War?

F-22 Raptor. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Only Troublemakers like North Korea and Russia Benefit from a Sino-US Cold War: If the United States and China fall into a cold war, the only countries in the world to benefit would be places like Russia and North Korea. The rest of the Indo-Pacific would suffer dramatically if the US and China fight what the Biden administration calls ‘great power competition.’

This may be inevitable.

China and the US are deeply different regime types. Both fear the other. China has territorial and prestige grievances – most obviously regarding Taiwan – which will not be accommodated by its neighbors and raise the spectre of conflict. But we should still do our utmost to avoid a long, potentially disastrous, cold war-style struggle with China.

East Asia’s Loss

The status quo in the Indo-Pacific is conducive to many states. The US and China balance each other. Many mid-size states, such as those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, do not wish either to be hegemonic in the region. The current situation in which trade with China fires their economies while the US provides some pushback on China’s belligerence suits them.

Many regional middle powers have mixed perceptions of both players. The US may be farther away and more liberal than China, but the US has a record of third-world intervention which has made many developing countries wary of aligning too closely with the US. India is the paradigmatic case. It shares democratic values with the US. It also shares geopolitical anxiety about China and Islamic fundamentalism. Yet this overlap of values and interest has never resulted in an alliance or otherwise tight relationship, mainly for India’s fear of being dominated by the US.

The Philippines too has bounced between the US and China. Former President Rodrigo Duterte defected from the relationship with the US only to face intense opposition in the Philippine military. Indonesia and Malaysia have long been wary of US power due to the war on terrorism.

In short, if the US and China sharply fall out and east Asian states are forced to choose, it is not automatically clear they will choose the US. And for all of these trading states, a Sino-US cold war would be an economic disaster – and possibly a political one too if it led to the US or China intervening in their domestic politics.

The US and China have some Shared Interests – We should focus on Those

The heaviest costs of the first Cold War fell on developing states who became the arena of US-Soviet competition. This will likely happen again in a US-China cold war. East Asia’s middle powers should therefore encourage all players to remember the region’s shared interests:

-North Korea: North Korea is a regional threat. It engages in crime, fraud, and hacking. It threatens proliferation. It has committed terrorism. China can help if it finally enforces sanctions.

-Trade: The Indo-Pacific is filled with trading states who benefit from trade openness and agreed rules. This very much includes China, whose rise was powered by its participation trade frameworks such as the World Trade Organization

-Finance: China and East Asian banks own a lot of US debt. The dollar is the region’s currency of trade. All parties have an interest in limiting inflation and insuring convertibility.

-Climate Change: The US, China, and India are among the world’s worst polluters. East Asia’s long shorelines mean that rising ocean levels due to global warming promise catastrophe. These big industrial players could do a lot if they could cooperate.

Fight a Cold War with China only if We Must

Despite the costs and shared interests, a Sino-US cold war seems likely.

Indeed, we may already be in it.

Last month, I attended a week of academic and think-tank seminars on the subject in Taiwan, and the shared scholarly opinion from around the region was deeply negative. And indeed, Chinese pressure on Taiwan and southeast Asia is pushing the US closer to that cold war.

But we should try hard to avoid this. We should be ‘dovish’ on China when we can, and hawkish only if we must (most obviously Taiwan). China’s economic and financial ability to sustain a cold war is far greater than the USSR’s was. A Sino-US cold war could potentially last decades. Poor countries caught in the middle will likely suffer the most, as they did in the first cold war’s proxy wars and interventions. And the only states who will benefit are global trouble-makers like North Korea or Russia.

For example, North Korea has long sought to play its neighbors off against each other to survive, tilting one way or the other to attract aid. During the Cold War it did this between the Soviet Union and China, pulling help from both in their wider competition to lead the communist bloc. In the 1990s, when it had no patron, it slid into a catastrophic famine.

It is in the shared interest of both the US and China to rein in North Korean bad behavior. Its nuclearization is driving South Korea toward nuclear weapons of its own. And China’s refusal to take genuinely punitive action against the North, to slow its nuclear march, is adding China to South Korea’s list of reasons to nuclearize. If the US and China fallout, Orwellian, nuclearized North Korea is the region’s biggest beneficiary.

We should fight this twilight struggle with China only if we have no other choice.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.