Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Are the United States and China in a New Cold War?

The Texas National Security Review recently gathered a group of Asia-watchers and historically-minded scholars to discuss whether the tensions between the United States and China amount to a 21st century Cold War. Senior Fellow Iskander Rehman chaired the roundtable, providing the following introductory essay :


For over two decades, Western academics and policymakers have struggled to define the nature and scope of the challenge posed by China’s rise.1 In the early 1990s, the U.S. spearheaded a series of efforts to better enmesh Beijing in the liberal international order, primarily by facilitating the communist behemoth’s access to foreign technology and markets. This policy was framed both as a net benefit for the global economy and trading system, and as a form of strategic down payment for the future. It was assumed that a wealthier, better-integrated, and more powerful China would slowly shed its insecurities and morph into a “responsible stakeholder.” Granted, democracy might not blossom overnight, but Chinese illiberalism would be tempered by pragmatic economic imperatives, diluted by the proliferation of digital communication technologies, and eroded by routinized interactions with Western-style democracies. In the meantime, modern Chinese authoritarianism — with its emphasis on collective leadership and technocratic efficiency — appeared to have provided a long-suffering people with a welcome degree of socio-economic stability after decades of bloody upheaval. Enthralled by the nation’s gleaming skyscrapers, continent-straddling highways, and meteoric rates of economic growth, some foreign observers even ventured that the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which appeared to have more successfully weathered the 2008 financial crisis than most, presented an alternative, and perhaps more viable, development model — the so-called “Beijing Consensus.”2

Over the past few years, however, the mood within the Western commentariat has turned. Hopes that the PRC might somehow morph into a super-sized Singapore have largely dissipated. From its militarization of disputed islets in the South China Sea to its unabashed use of economic coercion against countries ranging from South Korea to Mongolia, China has become more, not less, assertive in its near-abroad.3 Meanwhile, Beijing’s longstanding model of authoritarian governance — centered on collective decision-making and an orderly succession process — has precipitously crumbled. President Xi Jinping’s shift toward a strongman style of rule has been accompanied by an evolution, in parallel, of Chinese discourse and internal politics, which point to a more combative, jingoistic, and embattled regime. As many contemporary sinologists have noted, nationalism has progressively replaced Marxist revolutionary thought as the ideological cement of the PRC, though evidence of the latter persists in synergy with the former.4 To cite just one example of this nationalist-Marxist complement, China’s unabashedly cynical attitude toward the law of the sea reflects a longstanding revolutionary conviction that international law is little more than the “agreed will of a number of states,” and a tool for ideological warfare.5

This political evolution has resulted in nationalist revisionism — and more specifically the politics of anti-western ressentiment — becoming the ideological pillar of Xi Jinping’s China. Under his presidency, patriotic education campaigns have been revived, and the tone of public commentary has become more strident and critical of the United States, and of democracy’s perceived shortcomings.6 China’s expenditure on internal security has outpaced its defense spending, and draconian new cyber and counter-terrorism laws have further curtailed individual freedoms.7 By harnessing advances in big data, artificial intelligence, and facial recognition software, the Chinese state has considerably enhanced both its digital and physical surveillance capacities. It aims to export this dystopian suite of technological capabilities to fellow autocracies around the globe.8 In short, the environment has become one of greater domestic repression, of fear of ideological contamination, and of more overt hostility toward the U.S.-led alliance system in Asia.9

How, then, has the international community of China-watchers responded to this troubling evolution — to the collapse of the so-called “convergence myth,” and to the uncomfortable, nagging sensation that the West somehow “got China wrong,” or, in the words of a recent editorial in the Economist, that “the West has lost its bet on China?”10

The natural impulse is to reach for historical analogies. Human beings spontaneously engage in analogical thinking when confronted with particularly thorny conceptual challenges, “seeking and comparing patterns” and inferring abstract ideas from one domain before applying them to another.11 In an effort to better gauge the trajectory of the Sino-U.S. relationship, American analysts have begun doing just that. China’s proprietary attitude toward the South and East China Seas has thus been described as a new form of “Monroe Doctrine,” albeit with Chinese characteristics, and the past few years have borne witness to a steady stream of commentary that anxiously queries whether 21st century northeast Asia shares parallels to early 20th century Europe.12 And as relations between Beijing and Washington have steadily deteriorated over the past decade, commentators have begun to question whether the United States and China now find themselves embroiled in a “new Cold War.”13

In order to consider the appropriateness of that analogy, this roundtable has convened a stellar group of Asia-watchers and historically minded scholars. The immediate reaction of most of our contributors was to reject any such comparison as misleading or overwrought. In their joint contribution, Tiffany Ma and Brian O’ Keefe, from BowerGroupAsia and the National Bureau of Asian Research respectively, note that “despite the alluring simplicity of likening uncertainties in the present U.S. relationship with China to the zero-sum competition of the Cold War, significant differences make the analogy a poor fit.” Similarly, Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University posits that the Cold War is a “misleading comparison” for the China-U.S. rivalry, and cautions that “adopting such a mindset overstates the threat China poses, confuses assessments of the challenge, and diverts Washington from crafting an appropriate strategy.”

In making this case, several contributors note that the Sino-U.S. trade relationship — which has skyrocketed from two billion dollars in 1979 to six hundred and thirty-six billion dollars per annum in 2017 — binds both nations within a complex web of economic interdependence, the likes of which never existed between the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War. China and the United States are certainly competing, notes Robert Ayson of Victoria University of Wellington, but “largely within the same system.”

More importantly, China has “a stake in the current order, and has benefited from globalization,” argues Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security, before stating that, “while China has not yet liberalized politically as a result of its deepening integration into the international order, it has arguably become more of a status quopower in certain respects, increasing its involvement in international issues and institutions” One could thus point to China’s proactive role in negotiating complex multilateral arrangements, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Paris Climate Accord, and to its move toward taking on a leading role in peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations.14

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the contemporary international system is not defined by a superpower duopoly, with both powers at the heart of competing alliance structures and universalistic systems of belief. Neither country is attempting to “bleed the other out” through a series of violent proxy wars, or to trigger a system-shattering turn in global affairs via the collapse of their adversary. As eminent Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad has noted, the Cold War was a “bipolar system of total victory or total defeat, in which neither of the main protagonists could envisage a lasting compromise with the other.”15

It would seem at first glance, therefore, that there is little value to be gained from drawing such historical comparisons. Perhaps — as Auslin, Ayson, and Kania in particular suggest — it could even prove harmful, as it could forestall the collective formulation of a more coherent grand strategy toward China, one better tailored to the nature of the threat. This would comport with the wry observation made by Richard Evans, a renowned British historian, who writes that, “when people try to use history, they often do so not in order to accommodate themselves to the inevitable, but in order to avoid it.”16 Even worse, repeatedly conjuring up the Cold War analogy could lead to “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” “entrenching strategic competition,” or playing into China’s deep-seated suspicions the United States seeks to enact a policy of containment in Asia.

Not so fast, says Kori Schake of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The Cold War analogy may not be perfect, but it is “still useful for thinking about the threats a rising China poses to the United States.” One should not be too hasty in dismissing its relevance, and in so doing run the risk of throwing the grand strategy baby out with the Cold War bath water. We already know that the strategic history of the Cold War is a lot richer, less linear, and more variegated than common wisdom would suggest.17 Furthermore, Schake argues, “the circumstances that American leaders are facing today do bear some interesting resemblances to the Cold War, especially the mid-1950s.” Then, as now, the United States was traversing a crisis in strategic self-confidence, and had been plunged into domestic disarray. Then, as now, American policymakers found themselves pitted against an authoritarian power whose rise seemed almost inexorable. Moreover, claims Schake, there is a certain virtue in strategic clarity, and the Cold War comparison “helps give a sense of proportion to what America faces. Identifying China as an adversary clarifies U.S. strategic thinking on the matter and suggests policy courses of action commensurate to the challenge.” This is particularly important with regard to military planning. Indeed, highly diversified threat environments, with little to no ordering of potential adversaries, can complicate strategic assessments and undermine political-military coordination.18

While our contributors may disagree on the overall usefulness of the Cold War analogy, all converge on the necessity to respond more coherently and decisively to a rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia. Although there will remain strong incentives on both sides for cooperation and conflict mitigation, the Sino-U.S. relationship has curdled into something more overtly rivalrous. Sheryn Lee of Macquarie University in Australia warns “We have already entered a new phase in Sino-U.S. relations, characterized by orthogonal conflict, playing out in cyber space, through ‘gray zone’ coercion, and influence operations.” As these areas of competition expand, overlap, and begin to bleed into each other, warns Kania, the United States must “also be wary of the risks of misperception and potential miscalculation that can arise within a classic security dilemma.”

Our roundtable participants differ somewhat on their assessment of the severity of China’s military threat. Auslin claims neither the United States or China are “militarily organized to defeat the other as its primary enemy,” but subsequently concedes that Beijing’s pursuit of anti-access and area-denial capabilities (A2/AD) is geared toward neutering U.S. freedom of action and power projection in Asia. Lee expresses a high degree of confidence in America’s Third Offset Strategy, and believes its implementation will allow the U.S. military to preserve its technological and warfighting edge. Kania, however, warns that Chinese efforts to leapfrog its way forward in certain critical sectors — such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence — could allow it to “offset America’s current military-technological advantage in the Pacific and beyond.”

Interestingly, the roundtable participants also diverge on whether China constitutes a more redoubtable geopolitical challenger than the Soviet Union. For Kania, “across all dimensions of national power, China is a far more formidable rival than the Soviet Union or modern Russia,” whereas for Schake, present-day China has “nowhere near the soft power magnetism that communism did.” Ayson, for his part, points to China’s rather dismal-looking alliance portfolio, which pales in comparison to the diplomatic and military brawn of the Eastern bloc during the Cold War.

And in varying degrees, all of our contributors express concern over the potentially debilitating effects of deepening domestic disunion in the United States, and of the long-term risks associated with an abrogation of U.S. leadership on issues such as human rights and free trade.

Three short comments before ceding the floor to our contributors.

First, observers have a tendency to underestimate the weight of China’s ideological challenge — and, perhaps more broadly, to dismiss the time old appeal of authoritarianism even within well-established democracies.19 While the transatlantic debate on influence operations has largely focused on Russia, “down under” it is Beijing’s nefarious activities that have garnered the most attention.20  China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undoubtedly constitutes one of the most ambitious grand strategic designs in modern history.21 Looking beyond the more immediate concerns tied to debt traps and economic coercion, what political philosophy will undergird this monumental undertaking? Will this vast Eurasian circulatory system beat to the rhythm of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian heart, or will it be governed by the same rules and norms that have shielded the global commons from expropriation and enclosure since the end of World War II?

Second, there is an additional hazard nested within an overly casual use of the Cold War analogy. By framing the Sino-U.S. competition as a fundamentally bipolar struggle, it lends strength to Beijing’s position that the future of Asian politics should be determined at the G2 level, by a Sino-U.S. condominium. Our contributors rightly highlight the importance of second-ranking and middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, none of whom would be comfortable with such a prospect. As Charles Edel noted in an excellent, recent essay,

The G-2 model appeals to some U.S. policymakers because it seems to hold out the promise of one-stop shopping for stability. But it is a false promise, for other major Asian states — most notably Japan, Australia, and India — would never accede to an order that placed their independence, sovereignty, and ultimately security in a subservient position, and these states would justifiably resent the United States for seeming to suggest that they should.22

Finally, if this roundtable has proven anything, it is that contemporary foreign policy discussions need more rather than less animated debates over the relevancy of different historical analogies. Hal Brands and William Inboden are right when they say that the only way to avoid being misled in the process is

to know enough history to understand that all analogies are imperfect, and that using them properly requires using them with great care and discipline. It requires pitting analogies against one another in competitive fashion, in order to see which is truly the better fit and in order to free policymakers from the trap of viewing the present through the lens of only a single historical comparison.23

Let this analogical debate, therefore, constitute but one intellectual salvo amongst many in an ongoing struggle to provide robust, interdisciplinary analyses of some of the world’s most pressing security issues.

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