The world appears to be heading into a new Cold War, whether we like it or not, with predictions of a conflagration starting in the Asia-Pacific growing more certain by the day. In March, the former US admiral James Stavridis published a novel based on his theory that China and the US could find themselves in a nuclear war by 2034. Mr Stavridis is a former Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe. His opinion counts, as does that of Admiral Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, who warned the same month that China could try to occupy Taiwan within the next six years.
Mr Davidson’s nominated successor, Admiral John Aquilino, contradicted him – but only by saying that he thought the “problem” of “military force against Taiwan” was “much closer to us than most think”. China’s Xi Jinping has said that Beijing has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country", but the tensions still rise.
Now Michael Vatikiotis, author of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern South-East Asia, writes that the struggle between China and the US is slowly dividing East and South-East Asia, and that "it's only a matter of time before the guns start blazing and the region endures another in a long series of conflicts it has no stake in but pays a price for in blood".
It’s a stark warning for the hundreds of millions who live in that part of Asia but who seemingly have next to no voice in formulating the policies that could lead to such a disaster. And so if a new Cold War is being forced upon us, I say it is time to revive and revitalise another feature of the post-war great power confrontation: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). For, the many who do not want to risk war, who do not want to be drawn into China-US rivalry, and who wish for friendly and constructive relations with everyone, deserve to be heard.
The original NAM had its roots in the Bandung Conference of 1955, and was formally established in 1961 through the efforts of five leaders: India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesia's Sukarno, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito. Opposed to colonialism, imperialism and foreign aggression against its member states, NAM promoted the security and sovereignty of its mostly Global South members who wished not to be coerced either into the Soviet bloc nor into accepting American hegemony.
If its general orientation was to the left, that was understandable when many of these countries (eventually numbering 120 in total) had only recently achieved independence from colonial masters who had sometimes left reluctantly, and who frequently barely concealed their condescension towards their former possessions. NAM governments were diverse politically, but were easily able to unite on opposition to apartheid in South Africa, for instance.
While its intentions were undoubtedly noble, NAM was generally considered to have been a failure. It could not stop outside powers intervening, such as when the CIA backed a coup against Mr Sukarno in 1965 or when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Nor could it prevent member states going to war against each other, such as India and Pakistan and Iran and Iraq.
NAM still exists, but with the end of the first Cold War its very purpose seemed to have disappeared. After its 2016 summit, the King's College London professor Harsh V Pant wrote: "The 55-year-old Non-Aligned Movement, a once powerful bloc of independent nations, is dying and nobody is sending flowers. Interest has hit a new low with just eight heads of states showing up at Venezuela's Margarita Island for this year's summit." It had become, he said, "a moribund organisation in need of a decent burial".
NAM is still active – especially as a convening bloc at the UN General Assembly – and if, as Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin urged in an online summit this month, the group takes an active role in ensuring smaller nations receive access to Covid-19 vaccines, it would have proved it still has worth.
But if it is to be taken seriously, it must either be completely reformulated as a NAM 2.0 or replaced. NAM tried to do too much, but with little effect; not surprising, as it had no permanent secretariat or resources.
A new NAM would avoid those mistakes by organising itself primarily around the principle of neutrality. For, would it not be a powerful signal if a large group of countries came together to denounce the very notion of a new Cold War and declare they wanted no part in it? This is precisely what many countries are saying, but by doing so individually rather than collectively their pleas can be mostly ignored.
The nature of this neutrality would have to be broad. It should encompass countries who could seek international recognition of that status, just as Ireland, Switzerland and Spain secured and which was respected during the Second World War. It would include countries that were able to magnify their previous statements of neutrality through the new group.
It would be a big enough tent to accommodate the idea of neutrality that the Association of South-East Asian Nations signed up to in 1971 with the declaration of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan), even though two of the member states, Thailand and the Philippines, were US treaty allies.
The group could offer observer status to countries such as Germany. While the country is a member of Nato, key figures in the Christian Democrat leadership clearly do not wish to escalate tensions with either China or Russia and are likely to be sympathetic to the group’s aims. They are not alone in Europe or the Americas.
The key point would be for it to provide a forum and a voice on the world stage for all those countries – and they are many – who want no apocalypse, either now, or in 2035 or 2050. Forget the failures of the old NAM. If there is to be a Cold War 2.0, then a NAM 2.0 is surely an idea whose time has come and whose presence is urgently needed.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National