‘Cold War 2.0’: George Takach on the Evolving World Order

Recent Features

Interviews | Security | East Asia

‘Cold War 2.0’: George Takach on the Evolving World Order

“Innovations like artificial intelligence and semiconductor technology are expected to be pivotal battlegrounds in this New Cold War era.”

‘Cold War 2.0’: George Takach on the Evolving World Order
Credit: Depositphotos

As the war in Ukraine enters its third year and tensions escalate across the Middle East and beyond, global security concerns are reaching new heights. Reflecting on the mounting geopolitical frictions, the term “Cold War 2.0” is gaining traction within foreign policy discourse. 

In his latest book, Cold War 2.0,” Canadian attorney and writer George Takach provides readers with insight into the contours of this emerging era. He argues that the second Cold War, sparked by Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and its 2014 annexation of Crimea, is evolving into an intensified state of antagonism.

Against this backdrop, China emerges as a pivotal hegemonic force. The pressing question of whether President Xi Jinping will escalate military tensions against Taiwan and in the South China Sea will determine the trajectory of the future global order.

Takach recently engaged with The Diplomat to elaborate on some of the key points in his book. 

Can you explain why 2014 is the starting point of Cold War 2.0? 

In 2014, Vladimir Putin occupied Ukraine’s eastern territories and ultimately annexed Crimea, blatantly disregarding international norms. Around the same time, China escalated its assertive actions in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan. This stands in sharp contrast to China’s earlier conduct in the 1970s and ‘80s when it exhibited greater adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since 2014, the two prominent autocratic countries have exhibited a growing reluctance to adhere to the rule-based order.

How is the current era distinct from the first Cold War? 

In the original Cold War, the principal players were the United States and the Soviet Union. However, in the emerging new Cold War, the United States finds itself in a rivalry with China. Unlike the Soviet Union, China possesses a remarkable level of economic prowess and integration on the global stage. 

Moreover, a notable change lies in the role of technology. Innovations like artificial intelligence and semiconductor technology are expected to be pivotal battlegrounds in this New Cold War era.

After witnessing the drawn-out war in Ukraine, will China’s Xi Jinping take direct military action vis-a-vis Taiwan? 

Much like Ukraine posed a challenge to Russia, the flourishing of liberal democracy in Taiwan is a persistent thorn in Xi Jinping’s side. In my analysis, I anticipate that China may be poised to launch a full-scale invasion of the island by 2034.

During my recent visit to Taiwan, conversations with locals revealed a sobering reality: In the event of a Chinese assault, the island could only hold out for a mere two to three weeks without substantial support from the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Certainly, there exists a fundamental disparity between the situations in Taiwan and Ukraine. In war simulations I’ve examined, the grim reality emerges. Within a matter of weeks, the United States could potentially suffer the loss of two battleships and 20 support vessels, comprising a tragic toll of 25,000 fallen soldiers. In the case of Ukraine, no body bags are returning home to the United States. 

Such harrowing projections underscore the high stakes and formidable challenges involved in any confrontation over Taiwan’s sovereignty. Likewise, they underscore the critical importance of bolstering Taiwan’s defenses and strengthening alliances to deter potential Chinese military aggression.

In your book, you emphasize technology as a key component of the New Cold War. How so? 

Consider the Ukraine offensive in the Black Sea against Russian fleets. Ukrainian drones, at a fraction of the cost of traditional weaponry, effectively neutralized Russian naval power, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of their grain exports.

These advancements in military technology are proving invaluable in defensive operations, as seen in the deployment of naval vessels equipped with Aegis air defense systems. Equipped with automated AI systems, these vessels can swiftly identify and intercept incoming missile threats with remarkable precision. The ongoing development of surface and subsurface drones further underscores the rapid evolution of military capabilities.

The U.S. Air Force (and eventually others) is increasingly turning to AI technology for enhanced performance as well. In a recent simulation conducted by the U.S. Air Force, AI systems outperformed conventional jet fighters in a hypothetical dogfight scenario. I suggest that the era of traditional fighter pilots may be drawing to a close. Expensive and complex aircraft like the F-35 are likely to be supplanted by more efficient and technologically advanced alternatives. 

The Pentagon’s newly devised Replicator Program – aimed at swiftly assembling and deploying inexpensive drones within 18 to 24 months – aptly encapsulates our present circumstances.

It’s essential, however, to acknowledge a caveat: While technological progress brings significant benefits, it also presents risks. These innovative weapons systems may potentially fall into the hands of rogue states and non-state actors, posing a considerable threat to global security.

Are China and Russia on par with the new technologies? 

Russia and China still lag behind in military technology. U.S. President Joe Biden’s stringent sanctions and export controls against China are widening this gap further. Xi Jinping may believe that seizing control of Taiwan’s TSMC semiconductor chip fabrication plants would give China dominance in the semiconductor trade, but the reality is far from it.

Consider chip manufacturing: It’s a highly sophisticated process that relies on contributions from multiple countries. While the fabs are in Taiwan, essential components like the ASML ultra-advanced chip-making machine come from the Netherlands, lasers (a key component of the ASML machine) from Germany, wafers and industrial gases from Japan, memory chips from South Korea, and chip design from the U.S. This interconnectedness creates a situation where the national interests of democracies in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific are closely intertwined. Essentially, when it comes to acting together in order to prevail in Cold War 2.0, the key phrase for the world’s democracies is: “None of us is as strong as all of us.”

The other great strength of democracies is that we collectively have many stronger companies (than autocracies) involved in today’s leading technologies: artificial intelligence, advanced semiconductor chips, quantum computing, and biotechnology. I spent a lot of time in the book talking about how important these four technologies will be to the outcome of Cold War 2.0. 

Also, democracies allow for the key process of “competitive displacement,” where a new technology or innovation is allowed to overtake an earlier technology. This happens only rarely in an autocracy because of the iron grip of the autocrat on the economic system. Moreover, China typically supports only one major tech player in each vertical domain, while the democracies (especially taken together) boast numerous contenders.

All these key technologies are undergoing massive innovation almost daily. NVIDIA, for example, recently unveiled groundbreaking technologies that will revolutionize how AI systems are trained and used. This will be critical because, under the export ban of these systems from the democracies, these new developments will not be equally shared with China, ultimately hurting China’s ability to keep up with the democracies in civilian and military capabilities. 

Ironically, though, these restrictions, by widening the technological gap between China and the democracies, may push Xi towards more drastic measures concerning Taiwan. 

Finally, what other steps must the democracies take in order to prevail in Cold War 2.0? 

We must improve the administration and enforcement of the sanctions that stop the flow of technologies from democracies to autocracies – even today, semiconductor chips made in democracies are finding their way into drones fired by Russia against Ukraine. We in the democracies have to stop giving the autocrats the technologies they can then use to hang us.

Also, while it gives me no pleasure to say this, all the democracies will have to spend more on defense over the coming years and probably decades (the first Cold War lasted 40 years; the new one might last as long). That means less can be spent on education, healthcare, and pensions for the elderly, but sadly this is what it means to be dragged into Cold War 2.0 by the autocrats; the democracies simply have to pay more for the insurance policy called “national security.” It still costs much less than the alternative, as we are learning in Ukraine.

Finally, we must strengthen our own institutions of democracy, including the operation of elections, the support for human rights, and the practice of the rule of law. Technologies like social media are threatening to undermine each of these. We have to ensure that citizens in democracies are well equipped to defend against the cognitive warfare measures launched against the democracies by the autocracies. 

In this regard, democracies like the U.S., Canada, and most of the European countries have a lot to learn from our Asian partners in Japan and Taiwan, who have done better defending against social media disinformation from China and Russia. Again, the message for all the democracies has to be: “None of us is as strong as all of us!”

Jason Morgan of Reitaku University contributed to this report.