There will be an American-Chinese cold war

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Many academics and commentators have said that the United States and China are heading for – or are 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 reproduce the US-Soviet Cold War as a contest for world supremacy that will force other countries to choose sides between democracy and autocracy. But the war will remain “cold” because neither side seeks a direct confrontation or military conquest. Indeed, the cold war between the United States and China will be fought mainly in the economic, technological and political fields.

Other observers, however, have said with the same confidence that there will be no cold war between the United States and China because Washington and Beijing are in fact not engaged in an ideological struggle for supremacy. global. China is not seeking global hegemony or the destruction of capitalism and the American way of life. The rest of the world will not divide into American and Chinese camps either. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said comparing US-China competition to the US-Soviet Cold War risked “misdiagnosing the nature of the threat” and “misunderstanding the nature of the threat. competetion”. And as historian Melvyn Leffler said, the Cold War occurred “because of the specific circumstances that the United States faced after 1945. The historical context in which the United States operates today, the dominant configuration of power on the international stage and the ideological appeal of the rival regime are all entirely different.

What this split of opinion clearly shows is that whether you think a cold war between the United States and China is brewing depends on how you choose to define the term. Unfortunately, the US-Soviet Cold War is the only precedent and historical model available. Indeed, its unique and cumulative aspects have broadly defined the term. But they don’t need to do it exclusively. George Orwell, who arguably coined the term “cold war” in October 1945, before the US-Soviet conflict took shape, simply referred to it as “peace that is not peace” – a state of peace. hostility without armed conflict.

The US-Chinese competition is gearing up to match this basic description. While Beijing does not seek global hegemony, the eradication of democracy, or the destruction of capitalism (which it has widely embraced), it does seek global legitimacy for its model of government of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. China also seeks to maximize its wealth, power, and influence, especially relative to that of the United States, in large part because the United States has long been the global standard for wealth, power and education. ‘affecting. Beijing believes that Washington has adopted a de facto policy of containment to resist an increase in Chinese influence. This pushes the Chinese leadership to erode the ability of the United States to hamper Chinese ambitions. Chinese leaders are also seeking to exploit the fault lines between the United States and other countries that might otherwise collaborate with Washington’s efforts to do so.

This constitutes both a systemic ideological competition and a structural competition between two world powers for international influence, even if their spheres of influence do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. While this competition doesn’t need to be zero-sum either, both sides are increasingly approaching it as such and blaming each other for doing so. They are stepping up their economic, scientific and technological competitions in the apparent conviction that being the world leader in both fields is vital for their national security and that interdependence is unacceptable. They each equate the other’s military capabilities with intentions to challenge their security, interests or sovereignty; and increasingly militarized disputes (mostly involving third parties) that are primarily political and diplomatic and do not lend themselves to military solutions. And they both seem to presume the ultimate incompatibility of their two political systems – with the United States perceiving the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a threat to democracy, and Beijing perceiving Washington as determined to destroy the CCP.

All of this reflects and is exacerbated by the lack of strategic empathy on both sides. Beijing and Washington seem incapable of fully understanding – or unwilling to fully appreciate – the other’s point of view or recognize the reactive component of the other’s behavior. This was amply reflected in recent diplomatic exchanges in which the two sides crossed paths and disparaged each other’s rhetoric. This lack of mutual understanding and trust fuels both the underlying security dilemma and the misattribution by both sides of the other’s strategic motives and intentions.

This chasm is further compounded by the apparent belief on either side that it has the upper hand over the competition. Washington has stressed that it will deal with China “from a position of strength”, while the Chinese leadership has explicitly rejected this premise. Moreover, Beijing seems to calculate that the rise of China and the decline of the United States have reached an inflection point, where Beijing is now able to resist American pressure and begin to dictate its own terms for the relationship. Both parties thus overestimate their own power and underestimate their vulnerabilities.

They are both wrong. More importantly, both are inherently vulnerable. And behind their boast in dealing with each other, both sides internally face this vulnerability in a way that dramatically increases the likelihood of a de facto cold war – by Orwell’s definition – between them. The domestic political situation in the United States and China is pushing them towards a conflicting zero-sum approach to each other.

On the American side, the belief that China poses a Soviet-style threat to the United States is in part a by-product of the political dysfunction, polarization and economic malaise, which has been developing for more than a decade but has been exacerbated by Trump’s impact. presidency and the coronavirus pandemic. Not surprisingly, this fueled a sense of national vulnerability which in turn generated exaggerated perceptions of external threats, especially from China. In addition to Chinese business practices blamed 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 cybernetic capabilities as a threat. for the homeland security of the United States. All of these Chinese tactics and tools present real and substantial challenges for the United States, but the danger they pose to the American way of life has been greatly overstated.

The Biden administration, however, is precluded from adopting a neutral, empirical assessment of the challenge China poses, as it risks seeing the administration characterized by Republicans – and even many Democrats – as lax on the issue. against the Chinese threat. And the partisan divide is so balanced and delicately balanced both in the public and in Congress that neither Biden nor a potential Republican successor will be inclined to risk giving such ammunition to the opposition party. This is already reflected in Biden’s inability or reluctance to back down from some of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric on 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 national dysfunction on its credibility abroad – which should prompt constructive engagement with China. Instead, he dubbed the theme that “America is back,” the ideological conflict with China between democracy and autocracy, and the need for competition on cooperation with Beijing.

On the Chinese side, the belief that the United States poses an existential threat to China is based in part on statements of American policy over the years that have implicitly or explicitly advocated regime change in Beijing. Such statements validated the visceral and legitimate fears of the CCP leadership regarding internal unrest, and the possibility that they would be aided and abetted by foreign subversion. But negative opinions about the United States among the Chinese public are also fueled by a history of foreign attacks on Chinese sovereignty – in which the United States played a role even before the CCP’s rule – and perceptions of behavior. arrogant and interventionist internationals from the United States in recent decades. These perceptions are constantly fueled by the CCP’s propaganda, but they contain ample historical truth.

Under these circumstances, Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the CCP leadership are not inclined to take a substantially accommodative approach to the United States. They feel they cannot afford to be seen by the Chinese people – or each other – as gentle on the American threat. Moreover, they will not back down from the rise of China and its quest for 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 this from happening. This state of mind has become evident in Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy. More importantly, this is reflected in its traditional diplomacy and in the speeches and writings of Xi and other Chinese leaders that China is “moving towards the center of world affairs” in a manner commensurate with it. its wealth and power of the 21st century.

Paradoxically, both sides exhibit a combination of pride and insecurity, neither of which lends itself to a thoughtful and rational approach to the bilateral relationship. Rather, they lend themselves to zero-sum thinking and strategic paranoia. Both parties have an exaggerated sense of their material (and even moral) influence on the other, which precludes any consideration of compromise on important issues or a truly reciprocal approach to dealing with one another. At the same time, both face serious internal challenges that are almost entirely 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 to distract from them and to the so-called foreign “threat” – than to deal effectively with these problems. This only reinforces exaggerated perceptions of the threat that hamper self-reflection and self-help on both sides.


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