An expert's point of view on a current event.

A New Cold War Has Begun

The United States and China will be locked in a contest for decades. But Washington can win if it stays more patient than Beijing.

By , the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Chinese sailors march during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise at a military port in Zhanjiang, in China's southern Guangdong province on Oct. 22, 2018. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese sailors march during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise at a military port in Zhanjiang, in China's southern Guangdong province on Oct. 22, 2018. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In June 2005, I published a cover story in the Atlantic, “How We Would Fight China.” I wrote that, “The American military contest with China … will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” I went on to explain that the wars of the future would be naval, with all of their abstract battle systems, even though dirty counterinsurgency fights were all the rage 14 years ago.

That future has arrived, and it is nothing less than a new cold war: The constant, interminable Chinese computer hacks of American warships’ maintenance records, Pentagon personnel records, and so forth constitute war by other means. This situation will last decades and will only get worse, whatever this or that trade deal is struck between smiling Chinese and American presidents in a photo-op that sends financial markets momentarily skyward. The new cold war is permanent because of a host of factors that generals and strategists understand but that many, especially those in the business and financial community who populate Davos, still prefer to deny. And because the U.S.-China relationship is the world’s most crucial—with many second- and third-order effects—a cold war between the two is becoming the negative organizing principle of geopolitics that markets will just have to price in.

This is because the differences between the United States and China are stark and fundamental. They can barely be managed by negotiations and can never really be assuaged.

The Chinese are committed to pushing U.S. naval and air forces away from the Western Pacific (the South and East China seas), whereas the U.S. military is determined to stay put. The Chinese commitment makes perfect sense from their point of view. They see the South China Sea the way American strategists saw the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the principal blue water extension of their continental land mass, control of which enables them to thrust their navy and maritime fleet out into the wider Pacific and the Indian Ocean, as well as soften up Taiwan. It is similar to the way dominance over the Caribbean enabled the United States to strategically control the Western Hemisphere and thus affect the balance of forces in the Eastern Hemisphere in two world wars and a cold war. For the United States, world power all began with the Caribbean, and for China, it all begins with the South China Sea.

But the Americans will not budge from the Western Pacific. The U.S. defense establishment, both uniformed and civilian, considers the United States a Pacific power for all time: Witness Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan to trade in 1853, America’s subjugation and occupation of the Philippines starting in 1899, the bloody Marine landings on a plethora of Pacific islands in World War II, the defeat and rebuilding of Japan following World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and, most important, Washington’s current treaty alliances stretching from Japan south to Australia. This is an emotional as well as a historical commitment: something I have personally experienced as an embed on U.S. military warships in the Western Pacific.

In fact, the U.S. Defense Department is much more energized by the China threat than by the Russia one. It considers China, with its nimble ability as a rising technological power—unencumbered by America’s own glacial bureaucratic oversight—to catch up and perhaps surpass the United States in 5G networks and digital battle systems. (Silicon Valley is simply never going to cooperate with the Pentagon nearly to the degree that China’s burgeoning high-tech sector cooperates with its government.) China is the pacing threat the U.S. military now measures itself against.

This American refusal to yield blue water territory to China is championed by liberal hawks who will likely staff any incoming Democratic administration’s Asia portfolios, to say nothing of the Republicans—both pro- and anti-President Donald Trump. As for the so-called restrainers and neo-isolationists, when you boil it right down, they are really about getting American ground troops out of the Middle East, something that may actually strengthen the U.S. position against China. And as for left-wing Democratic progressives, when it comes to a hard line on trade talks with China, they are not too far away from Trump’s own economic advisors. Remember that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was forced to publicly disown the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement because of pressure from her own party. The fact is, since President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, U.S. policy toward the Pacific has been notably consistent whatever party has held the White House, and the turn against China has likewise been a bipartisan affair—and thus unlikely to be dramatically affected by any impeachment or presidential election.

Regarding the trade talks themselves, what really riles both the Trumpsters and the Democrats (moderates and progressives alike) is the very way China does business: stealing intellectual property, acquiring sensitive technology through business buyouts, fusing public and private sectors so that their companies have an unfair advantage (at least by the mores of a global capitalistic trading system), currency manipulation, and so on. Trade talks, however successful, will never be able to change those fundamentals. China can adjust its business model only at the margins.

And because economic tensions with China will never significantly lessen, they will only inflame the military climate. When a Chinese vessel cut across the bow of an American destroyer, or China denied entry of a U.S. amphibious assault ship to Hong Kong—as happened last fall—this cannot be separated from the atmosphere of charged rhetoric over trade. With the waning of the liberal world order, a more normal historical era of geopolitical rivalry has commenced, and trade tensions are merely accompaniments to such rivalry. In order to understand what is going on, we have to stop artificially separating U.S.-China trade tensions and U.S.-China military tensions.

There is also the ideological aspect of this new cold war. For several decades, China’s breakneck development was seen positively in the United States, and the relatively enlightened authoritarianism of Deng Xiaoping and his successors was easily tolerated, especially by the American business community. But under Xi Jinping, China has evolved from a soft to a hard authoritarianism. Rather than a collegial group of uncharismatic technocrats constrained by retirement rules, there is now a president-for-life with a budding personality cult, overseeing thought control by digital means—including facial recognition and following the internet searches of its citizens. It is becoming rather creepy, and American leaders of both parties are increasingly repelled by it. This is also a regime that in recent years has been imprisoning up to a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in hard labor camps. The philosophical divide between the American and Chinese systems is becoming as great as the gap between American democracy and Soviet communism.

Keep in mind that technology encourages this conflict rather than alleviates it. Because the United States and China now inhabit the same digital ecosystem, wars of integration—where the borders are not thousands of miles, but one computer click away—are possible for the first time in history: China can intrude into U.S. business and military networks as the United States can intrude into theirs. The great Pacific Ocean is no longer the barrier that it once was. In a larger sense, it has been the very success of decades of capitalist and pseudo-capitalist economic development throughout the Pacific that has generated the wealth required to engage in such a high-end military-cum-cyber arms race. Truly, the new age of warfare would be impossible without the economic prosperity that has preceded it: The glass is half-empty precisely because it is half-full. This is a theme of Yale Professor Paul Bracken’s prescient 1999 book, Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age.

The good news is that all this may not lead to a bloody war. The bad news is that it well might. I believe the chances of a violent exchange are still nowhere near the 50 percent baseline, where warfare becomes probable rather than merely possible. Nevertheless, the chances have increased significantly. This has to do with more than merely the famous Thucydidean paradigm of fear, honor, and interest. It has to do with just how emotional the Chinese can get over an issue like Taiwan, for example, and how easy it is for air and naval incidents (and accidents) to spiral out of control. The more the countries fight over trade, and the closer Chinese and American warships get to each other in the South China Sea, over time the less control the two sides will actually have over events. As we all know, many wars have begun even though neither side saw it in its interest to start one. And a hot conflict in the South or East China Sea will affect the world financial system much more than the collapse of Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen.

What kept the Cold War from going hot was the fear of hydrogen bombs. That applies much less to this new cold war. The use of nuclear weapons and the era of testing them in the atmosphere keeps receding from memory, making policymakers on both sides less terrified of such weapons than their predecessors were in the 1950s and 1960s, especially since nuclear arsenals have become smaller in terms of both size and yield, as well as increasingly tactical. Moreover, in this new era of precision-guided weaponry and potentially massive cyberattacks, the scope of nonnuclear warfare has widened considerably. Great-power war is now thinkable in a way that it wasn’t during the first Cold War.

What we really have to fear is not a rising China but a declining one. A China whose economy is slowing, on the heels of the creation of a sizable middle class with a whole new category of needs and demands, is a China that may experience more social and political tensions in the following decade. A theme of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies, is that as states develop large middle classes, the greater the possibility is for political unrest. This will encourage China’s leadership to stoke nationalism even further as a means of social cohesion. While skeptics, particularly in the world business community, see the South and East China seas as constituting just a bunch of rocks jutting out into the water, the Chinese masses don’t see it that way. To them, almost like Taiwan, the South China Sea is sacred territory. And the only fact that prevents China from becoming even more aggressive in the East China Sea is the fear that Japan could defeat it in an open conflict—something that would so humiliate Beijing’s leadership that it could call into question the stability of the Communist Party itself. So China will wait a number of years until it surpasses Japan in naval and air power. Beijing’s rulers know how closely their strategy dovetails with the feelings of the Chinese masses. Indeed, this new cold war is more susceptible to irrational passions fueled by economic disruptions than the old Cold War.

In the second half of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union each had internal economies-of-scale (however different from each other), that were far better protected from the destabilizing forces of globalization than the American and Chinese economies are now. It is precisely the fusion of military, trade, economic, and ideological tensions, combined with the destabilization wrought by the digital age—with its collapse of physical distance—that has created an unvirtuous cycle for relations between the United States and China.

The geopolitical challenge of the first half of the 21st century is stark: how to prevent the U.S.-China cold war from going hot.

Preventing a hot war means intensified diplomacy not only from the State Department but also from the Pentagon—American generals talking and visiting with Chinese generals in order to create a network of relationships that are the equivalent of the old Cold War hotline. This diplomacy must avoid the temptation of reducing the American-Chinese relationship to one contentious theme, be it trade or the South China Sea. It can mean playing hard on trade but always keeping the public rhetoric cool and reasoned. Passion becomes the real enemy in this competition, because in the megaphone world of global social media, passion stirs the impulse to assert status, which has often been a principal source of wars. And it means most of all stealing a concept from the American diplomat George Kennan’s playbook on containment: Be vigilant, but be always willing to compromise on individual issues and in crises. Wait them out. Because, in a very different way than the old Soviet system, the Chinese system—the more authoritarian it gets—is over time more prone to crack up than America’s.

Robert D. Kaplan is the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate; Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific; The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian; and other books.