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US vs China is the new Cold War

There is a story that Zhou Enlai asked a young American interlocutor in 1973: “Do you think China will ever be an aggressive or an expansionist power?” The American, politely perhaps, since these were the early days of the rapprochement, said, “No.” At that point, Zhou Enlai should have fired back: “Don’t count on it. It is possible. But if China were to go down such a path, you should resist it. And you have to tell the Chinese that Zhou Enlai told you that.”

Rush Doshi tells this story in his brilliant, invigorating and empirically rich The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. The book takes on the dual mandate implied by Zhou’s comment. The first is to explain that China is indeed on track to become an aggressive and expansionist power. The aim is not only to supplant the American order, but to remake the international order in its own image. The second is to think about how America might respond to China’s ambition. The book is based on an extraordinarily deep dive into Chinese documents and sources. It may well become the only book that distills both the Chinese approach to the world and the broad contours of Chinese-American competition. The Long Road would have been an important book in its own right, but it’s getting extra attention because Doshi is now China’s director on Biden’s National Security Council.

The common thread running through the book is that there is immense continuity in the Chinese approach to the world. This continuity comes from a resolute focus on national rejuvenation that will enable China to be at the top of the world order. The Communist Party is at the forefront of national regeneration. This rejuvenation includes not only direct national goals, such as unification with Taiwan, but a new form of order that will be clearly more compelling. Xi Jinping represents not so much a break with the recent history of Chinese policy, but the next logical step in its evolution. In this view, the differences between a slightly more open, less authoritarian China under Deng Xiaoping or Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are unimportant for world politics. The apparent difference in China’s approach to the world is largely determined by one critical factor: China’s perception of relative power over the US.

In this view, the Cold War between China and the US had already started in 1989, as it were. The decline of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and Tiananmen Square reinforced China’s perception of threat. What is depressing is the sense that the book conveys that China’s distrust of the US has been exaggerated. There is almost nothing the US can do to convince the Chinese of their benign intentions. The US perception has almost a “damn if you do it, and damn if you don’t”. Failure to integrate China into the world order is an indication of hostile intent; if you integrate China, as the US did by allowing the status of MFN and WTO, it is a secret strategy to promote liberalization and regime change.

But the actions that follow from this determined US suspicion are a function of an assessment of China’s relative power in the world. In an analytically sharp, if perhaps too neat story, Doshi describes China’s foreign policy prospects in three phases. From 1989 to 2008, China’s strategy was to weaken US power and prevent it from harming China. Doshi shows in vivid detail how the stultifying strategy works in all areas of China’s engagement with the world: it is economically involved in and participates in international institutions to protect itself. The choice of weapons, from submarines to missiles, is guided by an awareness of the need to wage asymmetric war and ensure denial of territory from the US, and it is using the world politically to soften its image. From 2009, especially with the onset of the global financial crisis, China goes into a construction mode. It creates its own international institutions, the military gains more offensive capabilities and it asserts itself more politically. It has now entered an expansive phase, where the goal is to resolve all territorial disputes in its favor, acquire bases around the world, drive the US out of Asia and create the world order in its comparatively more illiberal image. The choice of actions in all three areas, economic, political and military, is guided by this assessment.

Doshi’s response to an assertive China is to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook. According to him, the US should blunt Chinese power where possible and build where necessary. The book is full of vivid details. But it requires effectively denying China military space, keeping the Chinese from conquering international institutions, creating partnerships that can curtail Chinese influence, and creating a new US industrial strategy. It is a full-fledged manifesto for an ongoing Cold War.

Some may not be convinced by the seemingly overly cohesive Doshi exudes about Chinese decision-making. But the book is refreshing because it makes no assumptions about possible Chinese domestic weakness, or somehow the internal social contradictions of Chinese society bubbling up to save the world from potential Chinese ambition. It assumes that the Chinese system has deep roots, will remain legitimate enough and has the self-correcting ability to reorient its society towards its national goals.

Doshi argues against American declinism. But as he points out, we are in uncharted territory in world politics, where America meets an adversary whose GDP will give America a run for its money. China is vital to shaping the future of the world order. China’s assessment is convincing. But there are two problems. The first is whether the US can execute a grand China-style strategy domestically without compromising its openness or attracting allies. It is still America First under a different name. A revitalized American democracy (looking increasingly unlikely), of course, will have the strength of its example. But just repeating that China will export authoritarianism while the West will export liberal principles is too easy a story. The prospect of a world where nothing can convince China that the US won’t undermine it and little can convince the US that China isn’t expansive is sobering. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 5, 2021 under the title ‘The New Cold War’. The writer is editor, The Indian Express