A Cold War Is Coming, and It Isn’t China’s Fault
Why Washington should stop treating Beijing like an adversary.
Relations between the United States and China, which had been slowly deteriorating for several years, have taken a decisive turn for the worse. With all indications pointing to things getting substantially more strained before they get better, talk of a new Cold War has become common. And if that happens, it will be because the United States, whose president is bent on restoring a mythic past and whose national security establishment is in deep need of an adversary, has unilaterally decided to launch the war. Not only is the U.S. strategy of confrontation unnecessary, but it will not make the United States stronger, and it will not alter China’s long-term trajectory. Indeed, a new Cold War will create far more problems than it could ever hope to solve.
On Oct. 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a blistering attack on the Chinese government that might one day be compared to Winston Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech launching the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Labeling Beijing authoritarian, Orwellian, and expansionist, Pence accused it of “employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence.” He affirmed that the Trump administration would no longer attempt to cajole and persuade China to play by the rules; instead, it would emphasize “strong and swift action” to penalize Beijing for any perceived infractions.
For the moment, the most overt manifestation of Washington’s new active approach is tariffs. First came the duties on imports of steel and aluminum from multiple countries this spring. Next were levies on $200 billion worth of imported Chinese goods in September. Later that month, Trump broadened the campaign against China by slapping sanctions on the Chinese military over its purchases of Russian equipment. The administration said the sanctions were intended to punish Russia, but they were not seen that way by China. There has also been an uptick of negative stories about China, including an explosive Bloomberg Businessweek report that Chinese suppliers had hacked into major U.S. tech companies. The leading tech companies named, including Amazon and Apple, rejected the claims, which raised questions about whether the story was pushed by the U.S. government in order to ratchet up pressure on China.
Beijing has responded with a mix of retaliatory tariffs and warnings that it will not negotiate under threat. The country’s leadership, though, has been notably more muted about the larger strategic issues. Under the tight control of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has been careful not to inflame the situation even as it has been equally clear that it has no plans to accede to U.S. demands.
In such circumstances, it is a profound mistake to treat China as an adversary whose interests are entirely at odds with the United States’ and whose long-term ambitions can only be achieved at the expense of American prosperity. Doing so conflates China’s rise with America’s decline, and it assumes a zero-sum world. It risks pushing China into an antagonistic relationship that it shows little signs of wanting.
It is true that China has busily extended its power and influence of late, including through massive investments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that secure its influence and access to raw materials and new markets. The Chinese military has likewise moved into the South China Sea and beyond to mark out a sphere of influence just as surely as the United States has done in Latin America in years past. And, yes, China’s semiopen economic system excludes whole classes of U.S. and other foreign companies, especially in telecommunications and the internet, just as the United States guards its own sensitive industries. Yes, as well, Chinese companies have long demanded technology transfer as a cost of doing business in China, in ways that violate the spirit and often the letter of the World Trade Organization’s rules. The U.S. military presence in East Asia and some American companies’ presence in China, meanwhile, are certainly not celebrated by China. But that still doesn’t mean that Cold War is a good policy.
The now familiar mantra that hostility is warranted because years of engagement and investment in China failed to lead the Chinese Communist Party to bend to Washington’s will misses the point. China’s economic emergence has been a boon to global stability insofar as it is in everyone’s interest for fifth of the world’s population to thrive. It has also been a boon to the United States in that it has allowed hundreds of American megacompanies, from Nike to Starbucks to Apple, to find new markets. Millions of Americans, too, have reaped the rewards of cheap goods from China.
Even deeper than such benefits is the fact that the two countries depend on each other, albeit less than in years past. Despite the recent cooling of the relationship, trade between the United States and China still stands in excess of $700 billion. And before this year’s tariffs, China was the fastest-growing export market for U.S. goods and services. The fact that China did not become a democracy changes none of that.
If there is no economic logic for a new Cold War, is there a strategic one? Troublingly, the United States apparently needs to have one dominant enemy. Whether or not the first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable or the result of one power or the other has been endlessly debated. What is not in question is that the result was the evolution of a U.S. national security bureaucracy that was structured to meet the military and ideological challenge the Soviet Union represented. That system was restructured after 9/11 to focus on Islamic fundamentalism, but the tasks of nation building and counterinsurgency that followed the initial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were never an easy fit. In some ways, China—with its nominally communist system, its huge and growing military, and its assertive foreign-policy and economic practices—appears a much better successor to the Soviet Union.
Except that it does not need to be. China has shown little appetite for conflict with the United States. Its muscle flexing is almost entirely within its own geographic sphere, and even there it is met by regional counterweights such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam that are quite able to make military expansion very costly and zero-sum economic expansion unattractive. If anything, China is behaving in ways remarkably similar to the United States in the early part of the 19th century: grow rapidly within its own borders, flex some muscle in its immediate geographic sphere, and compete shamelessly with established economic powers by borrowing, stealing, and copying. That makes it a competitor, not an adversary.
It is true that making China the enemy satisfies a 20th-century script that demands one, but it is hard to see how a Cold War with China makes the United States richer, safer, or more secure. Tariffs alone will not break up the supply chains that bind China to the United States and the world. Absent massive domestic investment, frosty relations will not restore American heartland manufacturing jobs. And the nature of China’s military buildup for now does not justify more spending on traditional forms of U.S. defense, even as it might call for increased spending on cyberwarfare technologies.
Luckily, the United States has not walked too far down the path to a new Cold War. Few resources have been committed, not much has happened, and both sides are tentative. It would be fairly easy to plot a new course, and the United States should. However satisfying it may be to have an adversary, it will not serve the country. It would imperil an economic relationship that matters greatly and raise the risk of an actual conflict that will strengthen no one and weaken us all. Americans have long abjured preemptive strikes except in the most extraordinary circumstances. The same principle should apply to China. There’s no shame in backing down from an unnecessary fight, especially if the United States started it.