It has been four and a half years since the previous US President Donald Trump took office, marking the beginning of the US attack on China. In the first six months of Biden’s presidency, America’s anti-Chinese stance continued. The fundamental line of continuity between Trump and Biden is their stance on China. This supports the argument that America’s shift to China, far from some sort of Trumpian whim, is in fact deeply rooted in American politics and society. We should not be surprised by this. The favorable period of US-China cooperation from 1972-2016, totaling 44 years, was supported on the US side by two propositions: first, that China’s economic rise would never challenge America’s economic ascendancy; and second, that as China modernized, it would inevitably westernize and eventually become a Western democracy. In 2016, it was abundantly clear that both assumptions were wrong. China’s economy was already comparable to America’s; and China’s political system showed no signs of Westernization, but remained highly distinctive, capable of delivering extraordinary results and gaining popularity.
In light of this, America took the position that it should not see China as a relatively benign partner, but see China as a threat to its global primacy and find ways to contain, weaken and undermine it. America had never before seen China as a threat to its status as the No. 1 power in the world, nor in its entire history. We should not underestimate the importance of being number 1 in America’s sense of identity. It has been fundamental since 1945, but goes back much further in the form of America’s sense of missionary purpose. This explains why America’s shift against China has forced consensus domestically and why we can expect this period to last a long time, at least two decades, maybe a little longer. The problem for America, however, is that its position in the world, vis-à-vis China and the rest of the world, is only going to get weaker, as we’ve seen dramatically this century. America’s primacy simply cannot survive, but if America accepts this, it will be a very traumatic, conflicted and lengthy process.
How should we describe this new phase in US-China relations that began in 2016? In the West, it is commonly referred to as the New Cold War. I think this is a mistake. It’s so different from the original cold war to be misleading. I understand why it is popular in the US. They won the cold war. In fact, it was the last they won. To call it a new cold war creates the illusion that it is similar to or the same as the first cold war and will end the same way. None of this is true. The USSR was never a bit of an economic match for the US, at its peak the former was perhaps 60 percent of America’s size. In contrast, China is already economically on par with the US and will be much larger in a decade, let alone two, when it will be more than double. A hallmark of the first cold war was the division of the world into two hermetically sealed, hostile blocs. In contrast, China is deeply integrated into the global economy, in some ways even more so than the US. It cannot be cut out of the global economy. The sheer number of trading partners around the world would make such exclusion impossible. Military competition was another defining feature of the old cold war and it isn’t now: China won’t go down the same blind alley as the USSR. Ideological divisions were also crucial in the first cold war, but are much less relevant now, especially in something like the same form.
If it’s not another cold war, then what? We are witnessing a new kind of competition between China and the US, which is comprehensive in nature and covers a very wide range of issues, including the economy, technology, especially digital technology, governance and leadership, social inclusiveness, the relationship with the developing countries, climate change and pandemics. The bottom line is which modernity – the US or China – will be most effective and beneficial to the world in the twenty-first century. The history of the two countries is of course completely different, one is rooted in the nation state and imperial expansion, the other mainly a civilization state rooted in thousands of years of history. This aspect, too rarely discussed, is fundamental to the nature of the competition between the two. This brings me to one final difference between the first cold war and the current contest: the first was a binary conflict in the Manichaean tradition, with the end result being a winner and a loser. This match will not be the same. One country – I believe China – will prevail, but essential to any settlement will be a new synthesis between China and the US, a new kind of relationship, rather than the knockout blow that ended the first cold war. .
What are the consequences of all this? I would like to make two points. First, we must prepare for the long term. This phase will most likely last at least 20 years, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it is more than 40 years: after all, the benign phase of the US-China relationship lasted 44 years. This means that we should always think strategically, never allowing the present to obscure the future. In the heat of 2019-2020, when China was particularly brutally attacked and tit-for-tat exchanges became seemingly commonplace, the overriding importance of a long-term perspective was sometimes blurred. Tit-for-tat can stir the spirits of devoted supporters, but they usually alienate the non-devotees. Winning hearts and minds is a long process, not something achieved by a final blow.
Which brings me to my second point. In the first cold war, the world was divided into two blocs and irreparably polarized. This is not the case now and will not be the case. Even what might be called a western bloc (NATO, 5 Eyes, US, EU, etc.) is not a bloc. There is also no China bloc. China is also not aiming for a bloc. In other words, unlike in the first cold war, much of the world, most of it, is relatively impartial and open-minded. Take Europe. It’s definitely not in the same place as the US. It is shifting away from the US, both at the popular and establishment levels. It will be very difficult in the coming years to change the mind of the US, but that is not the case in Europe. China must find new and better ways of interacting with the European population: the key words must be “listen, reach out and engage in dialogue”. Dialogue was the antithesis of the Cold War. But dialogue is fundamental to the new phase: hearts and minds are crucial. And what applies to Europe also applies elsewhere, especially in the West, but also in the developing world.
The article was adapted by Martin Jacques, based on his speech in an online international forum themed “The Past 100 Years: China, the West and the World” on Wednesday. The forum was co-hosted by Chonogyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China (RDCY) and No Cold War. Until recently, Martin Jacques was a Senior Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow of RDCY. [email protected]