USA vs China is the new cold war
USA vs China is the new cold war

USA vs China is the new cold war

There is a story that in 1973 Zhou Enlai asked a young American interlocutor: “Do you think China will ever be an aggressive or an expansionist power?” The American, who may have been polite as this was the early days of the approach, said “No.” At what point Zhou Enlai is supposed to have fired back: “You should not count on it. It is possible. But if China were to take such a path, one must oppose it. And you must tell the Chinese that Zhou Enlai has asked you to do so. “

Rush Doshi tells this story in his brilliant, stiffened and empirically rich The long game: China’s great strategy to displace American order. The book assumes the dual mandate that Zhou’s remark implies. The first is to explain that China is actually on its way to being an aggressive and expansionist power. It is not only about displacing the American order, but about restoring the international order in its own image. The second is to think about how America can respond to Chinese ambitions. The book is based on an extraordinarily deep dive into Chinese documents and sources. It may well turn out to be the one book that distills both the Chinese approach to the world and the broad outlines of Sino-American competition. The Long Road would have been an impact book in itself, but it is gaining further interest as Doshi is now China’s director of Biden’s National Security Council.

The clue throughout the book is that there is tremendous continuity in the Chinese approach to the world. This continuity is derived from a targeted focus on national rejuvenation that enables China to be at the top of the global order. The Communist Party is the vanguard of national regeneration. This rejuvenation involves not only immediate national goals, such as unification with Taiwan, but a new form of order-building that will be markedly more coercive. Xi Jinping does not so much represent a break with the recent history of Chinese politics, but the next logical step in its development. At this point, the differences between a slightly more open, less authoritarian China under Deng Xiaoping or Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are irrelevant to world politics. The apparent difference in the Chinese approach to the world is governed by one critical factor above all else: the perception of China’s relative power over the United States.

From this point of view, the Cold War, as it were, between China and the United States had already begun in 1989. The decline of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, and Tiananmen Square increased China’s threat perception. What is depressing is the feeling the book conveys that China’s suspicion of the United States is convinced. There is almost nothing the United States could do to convince the Chinese of their benign intentions. There is almost a “damn if you do, and damn if you do not” quality to the perception of the United States. If you do not integrate China into the world order, it is an indication of hostile intent; if you integrate China, as the US did by allowing MFN and WTO status, it is a covert strategy to promote liberalization and regime change.

But the actions that result from this resolute suspicion against the United States are a function of an assessment of China’s relative power in the world. In an analytically sharp, though perhaps overly neat, narrative, Doshi describes the Chinese foreign policy outlook in three phases. From 1989 to 2008, China’s strategy was to blunt US power, prevent it from harming China. Doshi shows in vivid detail how the blunting strategy works through all areas of China’s involvement in the world: It engages economically and participates in international institutions to protect itself. Its choice of weapons, from submarines to missiles, is driven by an awareness of its need to wage asymmetric warfare and secure territorial denial to the United States, and it engages the political world to soften its image. From 2009, especially with the onset of the global financial crisis, China is entering a construction fashion. It creates its own international institutions, its military gains more offensive capabilities, and it asserts itself more politically. It has now entered an expansionist phase in which the goal is to resolve all territorial disputes in its favor, acquire bases around the world, expel the United States from Asia, and create world order in its relatively more liberal image. The choice of actions in all three areas, economic, political and military, is governed by this assessment.

Doshi’s response to an assertive China is to take a leaf out of the Chinese game book. In his view, the United States needs to dull Chinese power where it can and build where it needs to. The book is full of vivid details. But it requires effectively denying China military space, ensuring that the Chinese do not capture international institutions, creating partnerships through which Chinese influence can be curtailed, and the creation of a new American industrial strategy. It is a complete manifesto of an ongoing Cold War.

It is possible that some may not be convinced by the seemingly exaggerated context that Doshi conveys about Chinese decision-making. But the book is refreshing in not making any assumptions about potential Chinese domestic weaknesses, or somehow the internal social contradictions of Chinese society bubbling up to save the world from potential Chinese ambitions. It assumes that the Chinese system has deep roots, will remain legitimate enough and has the ability of self-correction to reorient its society to its national goals.

Doshi argues against American declinism. But as he notes, we are in unknown territory in global politics, where America meets an opponent whose GDP will give America a chance for the money. China is crucial in shaping the future of the world order. The assessment of China is convincing. But there are two problems. The first is whether the United States can carry out a magnificent China-style strategy in the domestic market without compromising its openness or attracting allies. It’s still America First with any other name. A revitalized American democracy (which increasingly looks unlikely) will, of course, have the power of its example. But simply to reiterate that China will export authoritarianism while the West will export liberal principles is a too easy narrative. The prospect of a world where nothing can convince China that the United States will not undermine it, and little can convince the United States that China is not expansionist, is sober. This will be an uneven ride.

This column was first published in print on August 5, 2021 under the title ‘The New Cold War’. The author is co-editor, Indian Express

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