Many researchers and commentators have stated that the United States and China are heading towards – or already engaged in– a new cold war. In their analysis, the term applies to the bipolar strategic competition between the two nuclear superpowers and their ideologies. It will copy the US-Soviet Cold War as a competition for global supremacy that will force other countries to choose sides between democracy and autocracy. But the war will remain “cold” because neither side seeks direct military confrontation or conquest. In fact, the Cold War between the United States and China will be waged primarily in the economic, technological, and political spheres.
Other observers, however, have stated with similar confidence that there will be no cold war between the United States and China because Washington and Beijing are not actually engaged in an ideological struggle for global supremacy. China is not seeking world hegemony either destruction of capitalism and the American lifestyle. The rest of the world will not divide into American and Chinese camps either. Former US Ambassador to Russia said Michael McFaul comparing US-China competition with the US-Soviet Cold War risks “misdiagnosing the nature of the threat” and “misunderstanding the nature of competition.” And as a historian said Melvyn LefflerThe Cold War happened “because of the specific circumstances that the United States faced after 1945. The historical context in which the United States operates today, the prevailing configuration of power in the international arena, and the ideological appeal of the rival regime are all completely different.”
What this division of opinion clearly shows is that whether one thinks an American-Chinese Cold War is on the way depends on how one chooses to define the term. Unfortunately, the American-Soviet Cold War is the only available historical precedent and model. In fact, its unique and cumulative aspects have largely defined the concept. But they do not have to do it exclusively. George Orwell, who no doubt coined the term “cold war” in October 1945 before the US-Soviet conflict took shape, referred to it simply as “a peace that is not peace” – a state of hostility rather than armed conflict.
The competition between the United States and China is shaping up to fit the basic description. Although Beijing does not seek global hegemony, the extermination of democracy, or the destruction of capitalism (as it has largely embraced), it seeks global legitimacy for its governance model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” China is also seeking to maximize its wealth, power and influence, especially in relation to the United States – largely because the United States has long been the global standard of wealth, power and influence. Beijing estimates that Washington has adopted a de facto policy of containment to resist an increase in Chinese influence. This is forcing Chinese leaders to erode the United States’ ability to thwart Chinese ambitions. Chinese leaders are also seeking to exploit rift lines between the United States and other countries that might otherwise cooperate with Washington’s efforts to do so.
This constitutes both a systemic ideological competition and a structural competition between two global powers for international influence – even though their spheres of influence do not have to be mutually exclusive. Although this competition does not have to be zero sum either, both sides are increasingly approaching as such and blaming each other for doing so. They are escalating their economic, scientific and technological competition in the apparent belief that being the global leader in both areas is crucial to their national security and that interdependence is unacceptable. They equate each other’s military capabilities with intentions to challenge their security, interests or sovereignty; and increasingly militarizing strife (mostly involving third parties) that are primarily political and diplomatic and not suitable for military solutions. And they both seem to assume the ultimate incompatibility between their two political systems – with the United States perceiving the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a threat to democracy, and Beijing perceiving Washington as intent on destroying the CCP.
All of this is reflected and exacerbated by the lack of strategic empathy on both sides. Beijing and Washington appear to be unable to fully understand – or unwilling to fully appreciate – each other’s perspective or to acknowledge the reactive component of each other’s behavior. This has been abundantly reflected in recent diplomatic exchanges where the two sides talked past each other and degraded each other’s rhetoric. This lack of mutual understanding and trust fuels both the underlying security dilemma and both sides’ incorrect attribution of the other’s strategic motives and intentions.
This gap is further exacerbated by the apparent belief on either side that it has taken over the competition. Washington has stressed that it will trade with China from “a position of strength”, while Chinese leaders have explicitly rejected that premise. Moreover, Beijing seems to be calculating that China’s rise and US downturn have reached a turning point, with Beijing now able to withstand US pressure and begin to dictate its own terms for the relationship. Both sides thus overestimate their own power and underestimate their vulnerabilities.
They are both wrong. More importantly, both are inherently vulnerable. And behind their blast in dealing with each other, both sides internally confront this vulnerability in ways that greatly increase the likelihood of a de facto cold war – by Orwell’s definition – between them. The domestic political situation in both the United States and China is pushing them in the direction of a zero-sum confrontational approach to each other.
On the American side, the belief that China poses a Soviet threat to the United States is in part a by-product of political dysfunction, polarization, and economic hardship that has been evolving for over a decade, but which was exacerbated by the impact of Trump. presidency and the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps predictably, this has fueled a sense of national vulnerability, which in turn has generated exaggerated perceptions of external threats – particularly of China. In addition to blaming Chinese trade practices for setbacks or weaknesses in the US economy, China’s overseas influence operations are seen as a threat to US democracy, and its space and cyber capabilities as a threat to US homeland security. All of these Chinese tactics and tools represent real and significant challenges for the United States, but the danger they pose to the American way of life has been greatly overestimated.
However, the Biden administration is barred from adopting a neutral and empirically based assessment of China’s challenge because it risks the administration being characterized by Republicans – and even many Democrats – as soft on China’s threat. And the party divide is so evenly and delicately balanced in both the public and Congress that neither Biden nor a potential Republican successor will be inclined to take the risk of giving the opposition party such ammunition. This is already reflected in Biden’s inability or unwillingness to withdraw from some of Trump’s inflated rhetoric about China. For the same reasons, Biden will also not be inclined to openly acknowledge the relative strategic decline of the United States – and the impact of domestic dysfunction on its credibility abroad – which should prompt a constructive engagement with China. Instead, he has doubled the theme of “America is back,” the ideological struggle with China between democracy and autocracy, and the need for competition for cooperation with Beijing.
On the Chinese side, the belief that the United States poses an existential threat to China is based in part on U.S. political statements over the years that implicitly or explicitly advocated a regime change in Beijing. Such statements have validated CCP leaders’ visceral and legitimate fears of domestic unrest and the potential for it to be helped and promoted by foreign subversion. But negative views of the United States among the Chinese public are also driven by a history of foreign violations of Chinese sovereignty – in which the United States played a role even before the CCP regime – and perceptions of arrogant and interventionist American international behavior in recent decades. These views are consistently nurtured by CCP propaganda, but there is ample historical truth in them.
Under these circumstances, Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the CCP leadership are not inclined to initiate a significantly accommodating approach to the United States. They assess that they can not afford to be perceived by the Chinese people – or each other – as soft on the American threat. Moreover, they will not retreat from China’s progress and its pursuit of global stature and influence, which has been a Chinese imperative for 150 years. The Chinese believe that China’s time as a great power has come, and they will not let the United States deny or prevent that from happening. This mindset has become manifest in China “wolf warriors” diplomacy. More importantly, it is reflected in its mainstream diplomacy and in the speeches and writings of Xi and other Chinese leaders that China is “moving toward the center of world affairs” in ways that are commensurate with its wealth and power in the 21st century.
Paradoxically, both sides show a combination of hubris and insecurity – neither of which gives itself a well-considered, rational approach to the bilateral relationship. On the contrary, they lend themselves to zero-sum thinking and strategic paranoia. Both sides have an excessive sense of their material (and even moral) lever over the other, preventing any consideration of compromise on important issues or a truly mutual approach to dealing with each other. At the same time, both face serious internal challenges that are almost exclusively self-inflicted: American democracy is eroding, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is probably a house of cards. But both Washington and Beijing find it easier to blame their problems on the other side – or at least divert attention away from them and against the supposed foreign “threat” – than to effectively confront these problems. This only reinforces the inflated threat perceptions that hinder self-reflection and self-help on both sides.