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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. 

Written By

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. 



  1. 403Forbidden

    December 15, 2022 at 8:10 am

    Heh, heh, the TRUE real winners are the arms manufacturers and their lobby frontmen in Congress on grand capitol hill.

    The US is a meat-consuming predator, and right now is chewing on Russia. But rus is just mostly nothin’ but bones, the real meaty meat is china.

    US is planning to do a big stupendously huge number on china, already with numerous submarines, warships, warplanes, spyplanes and military personnel right on its front doorstep & front window.

    The boss of STRATCOM, a Mr or general or actually admiral Charles Richard, accidentally let the cat out of the bag when he just hyperventilated a little wee bit on 2 November 2022.

    Admiral Richard said the proxy war against Russia is ‘just a little warm-up, the real big one (US war against china) is yet to come.’

    North Korea is fortunate not to follow the example of Libya which gave up nukes in exchange for sanctions relief.

    Russia today reels from massive arms supplies to Kyiv, but eventually will prevail, if Putin comes to his senses and decides enough is enuff, and proceeds to flatten Kyiv, Odessa, lyiv, kharkiv, etc completely.

    The Russia high command must stand up to Putin and tell him go check the ficking actions the allies inflicted on German cities, like Wesel, in 1945.

    Biden, the chief of devils, or chief of NATO dogbarking warmongers and now the chief antichrist from babylon-on-the-Potomac, wants to remake the world.

    Today, in Ukraine, Putin has the opportunity to hurl a spanner in Biden”s, the chief of ? devils’ plan.

    China and north Korea will one day thank Putin for drawing his red line against Biden and his cohort.

  2. Commentar

    December 15, 2022 at 11:51 am

    The eternal troublemaker is not Russia, north korea or some other victim of US sanctions, but Washington.

    When you search the web for direct foreign interventions by United States, you get starkly confronted by US involvement in over 400 wars.

    What about covert involvement, like the 1953 coup in iran, the dozens of US-trained death squads that were stood up in Latin America in the 70s & early 80s, the hundreds of thousands killed in the 1965 CIA-backed indon mass pogroms and medical ‘experiments’ in places like Guatemala.

    Today, in our 21st century, Washington is still a big troublemaker.

    Biden in 2021 called Putin ‘killer’ after being herded by a top ABC interviewer, completely forgetting Obama killed 2,400 people in the CIA drone wars.

    Biden also ignored CIA’s involvement in Syria where it supported jihadist groups that occasionally battled islamist groups funded by the pentagon.

    Biden also conveniently laid aside the US-advised trench warfare perpetrated by national guard units and Right Sector & azov and dnipro neo-nazi battalions against Donbass natives.

    Such is US a really off-the-edge terrible troublemaker, it takes only a man like Putin to stop it in its tracks.

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    December 15, 2022 at 12:03 pm

    There has been a conflict/competition for the soul of mankind for 246 years. Between Authoritarian supporting cultures (Leftist, Islamic, Monarchists, etc.) and American/1st World democracy supporting cultures.

    American Culture is the most successful culture in history. The 1st of the 1st world cultures, the one all others had to emulate to become 1st world cultures.

    There is only one strategy, “Compounding Growth” is the most powerful force in the universe, all other winning behaviors are only tactics.

    1st world cultures (Democracies) are strategically superior to authoritarian cultures because they grow faster. It’s the “Feedback of Competition” which provides both the Information and Motivation that forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, in Free Markets. Free markets are the most efficient way to allocate resources. Free markets are necessary to force continuous improvements. Free markets are creative. Free markets are delicate structures that require specific cultural attributes to exist:
    1. Democracy is necessary for the “Rule of Law” to exist. Political power in Authoritarian cultures negates the “Rule of Law”.
    2. The “Rule of Law” is necessary to secure “Private Property”. Without secure “Private Property” people must hide their capital from the politically powerful, and it isn’t put to work.
    3. Secure “Private Property” is necessary for “Free Markets” to exist. Capital will confine itself to inefficient Black Markets or horded in order to preserve itself otherwise.
    4. “Free Markets” are necessary for the most efficient allocation of resources, forcing continuous improvements, and the creativity needed for faster growth.
    5. “Compounding Growth” is the most powerful force in the universe and the foundation of all Strategy. Growth not realized, cannot be compounded into the future, and is lost forever.

    Authoritarian Cultures can neither create nor maintain modern civilization without continuous 1st world input. Without foreign/1st world investors bootstrapping China into modern civilization, China would be reduced to the water buffalo level economy it suffered from before their investments. If Chinese belligerence causes a Strategic Blockade of the China Sea, foreign investment in China will end, China’s GDP will instantly be cut in half, and its economy will revert to its previous water buffalo level competence.

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics.”

    Strategically a US vs China coldwar can end only one way. The US should encourage the competition, and use it to spread 1st world culture to authoritarian cultures.

    Cultures change at glacial speeds.

    “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Edmund Burke

  4. ATM

    December 15, 2022 at 12:51 pm

    We will know that India is the winner when China The West and Russia have destroyed each other.

  5. GhostTomahawk

    December 15, 2022 at 5:59 pm

    The US would destroy China in a military war. Even with the incompetent leadership we have.

    But we wouldn’t even have to fight their military. We could embargo them and sink all shipping coming and going, cripple their infrastructure with missiles and watch that country implode on TV.

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