Are the United States and the People’s Republic of China engaged in a Cold War? The question is all the more urgent in light of the border skirmishes between China and India, which will likely lead to closer Indo-American military cooperation. The Sino-American relationship does bear some resemblance to the rivalry in the second half of the 20th century between the United States and the Soviet Union: Both involve the two countries with the world’s most powerful military forces at odds over a broad range of issues but with neither seeking an overt military conflict with the other. The Sino-American rivalry also differs from the Soviet-American Cold War, however, and an understanding of the differences as well as the similarities is necessary for devising and carrying out an effective American policy toward China.
The Cold War pitted two distinct ideologies against each other: American and Western free-market economics and political democracy against the communist centrally planned economy and an all-powerful communist party that aspired to total control of the society over which it presided. While the American political system differs fundamentally from that of China, whose ruling Communist Party retains a monopoly of power, the Chinese, unlike the leaders of the Soviet Union, are not seeking to spread their form of government around the world, let alone install Soviet-style central planning anywhere—including China.
Instead, it is Chinese nationalism that poses the greatest threat to other countries. The People’s Republic proclaims, and practices, a dangerously expansive form of it. Contrary to international law, China claims virtually all of the western Pacific Ocean as its own territory and has built artificial islands there on which it has placed military installations. Should the Chinese government secure effective control of the vast maritime expanse to which it lays claim, it would acquire considerable leverage over all the countries for which the Pacific is a major avenue of trade. That would make virtually every country in the world, including the United States, vulnerable to Chinese political and economic demands. For that reason, the United States Navy has conducted “Freedom of Navigation” operations in the Pacific, sending its ships into waters the Chinese claim in order to assert the fundamental international principle of freedom of the seas. The importance of that principle means that maintaining robust American maritime forces in the Pacific serves not only American interests but global interests as well.
Chinese nationalism also lies behind the claim of the communist government in Beijing to govern the island of Taiwan, the protection of which is the most difficult and perilous feature of 21st-century American policy toward China. Located 100 miles off the coast of the mainland—far enough to make an invasion difficult but not so far as to be beyond the reach of communist military power—the government of the Republic of China on the island has evolved from an authoritarian regime founded in 1949 by the losing side in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, into an economically flourishing democracy. American support, including a continuing supply of weaponry, has made Taiwan’s de facto independence possible.
Historically, the island has been governed from the mainland only intermittently since the 17th century and not at all since 1949. The communist regime has never abandoned its insistence on ultimately controlling it, however, and over the decades proclaiming a determination to achieve that goal has, if anything, increased in importance for the regime’s political legitimacy and domestic popularity. For a time, a status for the island acceptable to both sides, under the formula “one country, two systems,” appeared possible. With the escalating harshness of communist rule under the present leader, Xi Jinping, and the erosion of the rights to which Hong Kong is entitled by the terms of the Joint Sino-British Declaration of 1984, which preceded the transfer of control of the territory from Great Britain to China in 1997, such an outcome no longer seems at all likely.
Like freedom of navigation in the western Pacific, the United States and the rest of the world have a vital interest in preventing the forcible conquest of Taiwan by the People’s Republic, which would tilt the balance of power in Asia sharply toward the Chinese Communist Party as well as subject a free people to dictatorial rule. Where Taiwan is concerned, therefore, the United States must strike a careful balance, ensuring that its government has the military resources to deter an attack from the mainland while avoiding policies—which include a proclamation of the formal independence for which the island qualifies in every other way—that could provoke such an attack. American foreign policy faces no more difficult challenge in the years ahead.
Another major dissimilarity distinguishes the rivalry with China in this century from the Cold War of the last. The United States, and the non-communist world in general, had very little economic contact with the Soviet Union and its communist satellites and clients. China, by contrast, is deeply embedded in the global economy, indeed a central part of it. The United States trades with and invests in China on a large scale, as do other countries, and putting an end to all commercial relations is not feasible. Rather, the economic relationship with the People’s Republic requires adjustments in three distinct areas.
First, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the world’s undue dependence on China for medical supplies of all kinds. Prudence counsels broadening the sources of these supplies by producing them in other relatively low-wage countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh as well as by manufacturing as many of them as possible at home. In general, it seems clear that global supply chains have become too reliant on China. Just as individuals are wise to diversify their financial portfolios, so the world would be well advised to route its supply chains through countries other than (albeit in addition to) China.
Second, some high-tech products in the production of which China has established a strong position affect national security: The 5-G networks of the Chinese firm, Huawei, are the most notable but not the only example. Here the revival and updating of America’s Cold-War institutions and practices for evaluating the strategic impact of such technologies, and, if necessary, placing limits on the export or the purchase of them, is desirable.
Third, the Chinese government has disregarded global norms governing international economic activity. It uses subsidies, for example, to strengthen its own firms at the expense of foreign ones and steals intellectual property on a massive scale. While it is neither feasible nor desirable to exclude China from the global economy as the Soviet Union—in no small part by its own choosing—was excluded, the United States and the rest of the world do have a substantial interest in having China observe the rules that other countries follow. This requires amassing economic leverage to use to persuade the Chinese to comply with global regulations, laws, and norms. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration negotiated with the non-Chinese countries of Asia, would serve as the ideal vehicle for this purpose. Unfortunately, both major American political parties abandoned it and the United States does not belong to it. Joining it would do more to advance American and global economic aims involving China than any other single policy.
This necessary condition for a successful economic policy toward China is part of a significant similarity between the Cold War and the Sino-American rivalry. The United States prevailed in that conflict because it belonged to a coalition of like-minded countries. Without NATO, the various American bilateral alliances in Asia, and the global economic order that the United States did so much to establish and sustain, the Cold War would surely not have ended as, or when, it did.
The potential exists for a formidable coalition to oppose the designs of the Chinese Communist Party. No other Asian country desires Chinese domination of its region militarily or politically, nor does any country there or elsewhere welcome Beijing’s economic tactics. While the United States will have to take the lead in organizing them, multilateral initiatives to preserve freedom of navigation in the Pacific and to support Taiwan will have greater weight than unilateral American ones; and economic demands on China made by a coalition of countries will have a better chance of success than those emanating only from Washington.
More generally, the United States should not regard the rivalry with China as simply a conflict to determine which of the two will dominate the Asia-Pacific region in the years ahead, which appears to be how the government in Beijing sees it. The differences the United States has with China ought rather to be understood, and in fact are properly understood, as a contest between Chinese ambitions for primacy, on the one hand, and on the other a commitment to national independence, international economic and political cooperation among sovereign equals, and the rule of law in international affairs. These, after all, have been the principal American goals for Asia, even if the United States has not always pursued them adroitly, for at least the past eight decades. They are goals to which most countries, with the conspicuous exception of China (as well as Russia and some others), subscribe and on the basis of which the United States can assemble a broad coalition to confront the Chinese. While President Donald Trump deserves credit for shifting the China policy of the United States in a less accommodating direction, his designation of “America first” as the country’s guiding principle in international affairs and his launching of trade wars with countries inclined to join a coalition opposing China undercut American purposes in Asia.
The Cold-War anti-Soviet coalition had a defensive goal: political and military containment. It sought to prevent Moscow from exercising malevolent influence or direct control over Western Europe, and it succeeded. That is also the appropriate goal, in Asia, for a coalition to confront China. The Cold War ended, however, when and because the communist government of the Soviet Union collapsed, as, more or less simultaneously, did the Soviet Union itself.
The end of communist rule in China would likely have similarly salutary consequences. The Chinese policies that threaten other countries stem, at least in part, from the character of the regime that governs the mainland. Communist politics involve the repression of individual liberty and rely, ultimately, on coercion rather than consent. Moreover, the Chinese communists have come to depend on aggressive nationalism as well as economic growth for such political legitimacy and domestic popularity as they enjoy; and as the country’s growth rate diminishes, nationalism becomes ever more important for achieving the Communists’ highest priority: retaining their own power.
A democratic China would still aspire to exert influence in Asia and the world, but would likely go about doing so in ways more acceptable to other countries than the policies of the current regime in Beijing. When, or indeed whether, democracy will come to China is, unfortunately, unknowable; and as desirable as such a development may be, the rest of the world, including the United States, does not have the power to bring it about. What America can hope to do, in concert with others, is to muster sufficient military power and economic pressure to persuade the Chinese government to retreat from Xi Jinping’s aggressive approach to the rest of the world and resume the less assertive, more cooperative policies it carried out under the leadership of his predecessors Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. That would count as a success for 21st-century American China policy.