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Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War

The left says it’s U.S. arrogance. The right says it’s Chinese malevolence. Both are wrong.

Flags of the United States and China are placed ahead of a meeting between U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his Chinese counterpart, Han Changfu, at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing on June 30, 2017.
Flags of the United States and China are placed ahead of a meeting between U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his Chinese counterpart, Han Changfu, at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing on June 30, 2017. JASON LEE/AFP via Getty Images

The United States is pretty polarized these days, but nearly everyone seems to agree that China is a big problem. The Trump administration has been at odds with China on trade issues since day one, and its 2017 National Security Strategy labeled China a “revisionist power” and major strategic rival. (President Donald Trump himself seems to have been willing to give Beijing a free pass if it would help him get reelected, but that’s just a sign of his own venality and inconsistent with the administration’s other policies.) Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden may have started his campaign in 2019 downplaying fears that China was going to “eat our lunch,” but his campaign has grown increasingly hawkish over time.

Not surprisingly, hard-line Republican members of Congress like Josh Hawley and Matt Gaetz have been sounding the alarm as well, while progressives and moderates warn of a “new cold war” and call for renewed dialogue to manage the relationship. Despite their differing prescriptions, all of these groups see the state of Sino-American relations as of vital importance.

Unfortunately, discussion of the Sino-American rivalry is also succumbing to a familiar tendency to attribute conflict to our opponents’ internal characteristics: their ruling ideology, domestic institutions, or the personalities of particular leaders. This tendency has a long history in the United States: The country entered World War I in order to defeat German militarism and make the world safe for democracy, and later it fought World War II to defeat fascism. At the dawn of the Cold War, George Kennan’s infamous “X” article (“The Sources of Soviet Conduct”) argued that Moscow had a relentless and internally motivated urge to expand, driven by the need for foreign enemies to justify the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. Appeasement would not work, he argued, and the only choice was to contain the Soviet Union until its internal system “mellowed.” More recently, U.S. leaders blamed America’s problems with Iraq on Saddam Hussein’s recklessly evil ambitions and portrayed Iran’s leaders as irrational religious fanatics whose foreign-policy behavior is driven solely by ideological beliefs.

In all of these conflicts, trouble arose from the basic nature of these adversaries, not from the circumstances they found themselves in or the inherently competitive nature of international politics itself.

And so it is with China today. Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster maintains that China is a threat “because its leaders are promoting a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to democratic governance and free-market economics.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agrees: In his view, relations have deteriorated because “it’s a different Chinese Communist Party today than it was 10 years ago. … This is a Chinese Communist Party that has come to view itself as intent upon the destruction of Western ideas, Western democracies, Western values.” According to Sen. Marco Rubio: “Chinese Communist Party power serves no purpose but to strengthen the party’s rule and to spread its influence around the world. … China is an untrustworthy partner in any endeavor whether it’s a nation-state project, an industrial capacity, or financial integration.” The only way to avoid a conflict, Vice President Mike Pence said, is for China’s rulers to “change course and return to the spirit of ‘reform and opening’ and greater freedom.”

Even far more sophisticated China watchers, such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, attribute much of China’s increasingly assertive stance to President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power, and Rudd sees this behavior as “an expression of Xi Jinping’s personal leadership temperament, which is impatient with the incremental bureaucratism endemic to the Chinese system, and with which the international community had become relaxed, comfortable, and thoroughly accustomed.” The implication is that a different Chinese leader would be a much less serious problem. Similarly, Timothy Garton Ash believes that the “primary cause of this new cold war is the turn taken by the Chinese communist party leadership under Xi Jinping since 2012: more oppressive at home, more aggressive abroad.” Other observers point to rising nationalism (whether spontaneous or government-sponsored) as another key factor in China’s greater foreign-policy assertiveness.

Relying on categories originally conceived by the late Kenneth Waltz, international relations scholars variously refer to such accounts as “unit-level,” “reductionist,” or “second-image” explanations. The many variations within this broad family of theories all view a country’s foreign-policy behavior as primarily the result of its internal characteristics. Thus, U.S. foreign policy is sometimes attributed to its democratic system, liberal values, or capitalist economic order, just as the behavior of other states is said to derive from the nature of their domestic regime, ruling ideology, “strategic culture,” or leaders’ personalities.

Explanations based on domestic characteristics are appealing in part because they seem so simple and straightforward: Peace-loving democracies act that way because they are (supposedly) based on norms of tolerance; by contrast, aggressors act aggressively because they are based on domination or coercion or because there are fewer constraints on what leaders can do.

Focusing on the internal characteristics of other states is also tempting because it absolves us of responsibility for conflict and allows us to pin the blame on others. If we are on the side of the angels and our own political system is based on sound and just principles, then when trouble arises, it must be because Bad States or Bad Leaders are out there doing Bad Things. This perspective also provides a ready solution: Get rid of those Bad States or those Bad Leaders! Demonizing one’s opponents is also a time-honored way of rallying public support in the face of an international challenge, and that requires highlighting the negative qualities that are supposedly making one’s rivals act as they are.

Unfortunately, pinning most of the blame for conflict on an opponent’s domestic characteristics is also dangerous. For starters, if conflict is due primarily to the nature of the opposing regime(s), then the only long-term solution is to overthrow them. Accommodation, mutual coexistence, or even extensive cooperation on matters of mutual interest are for the most part ruled out, with potentially catastrophic consequences. When rivals see the nature of the other side as a threat in itself, a struggle to the death becomes the only alternative.

What unit-level explanations either overlook or downplay are the broader structural factors that have made Sino-American rivalry inevitable. First and foremost, the two most powerful countries in the international system are overwhelmingly likely to be at odds with each other. Because each is the other’s greatest potential threat, they will inevitably eye each other warily, go to considerable lengths to reduce the other’s ability to threaten their core interests, and constantly look for ways to gain an advantage, if only to ensure that the other side does not gain an advantage over them.

Even if it were possible (or worth the risk), internal changes in either the United States or China are unlikely to eliminate these incentives (or at least not anytime soon). Each country is trying—with varying degrees of skill and success—to avoid being in a position where the other can threaten its security, prosperity, or domestic way of life. And because neither can be completely sure what the other might do in the future—a reality amply demonstrated by the erratic course of U.S. foreign policy in recent years—both are actively competing for power and influence in a variety of domains.

This troubling situation is exacerbated by the incompatibility of their respective strategic objectives, which derive in part from geography and from the legacies of the past century. Quite understandably, China’s leaders would like to live in as secure a neighborhood as possible, for the same reasons that the United States formulated and eventually enforced the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere. Beijing need not impose one-party state capitalist regimes around its periphery; it just wants all of its neighbors to be mindful of its interests and does not want any of them to pose a significant threat. Toward that end, it would like to push the United States out of the region so that it no longer has to worry as much about U.S. military power and so that its neighbors cannot count on American help. This goal is hardly mystifying or irrational: Would any great power be happy if the world’s most powerful country had significant military forces arrayed nearby and had close military alliances with many of its immediate neighbors?

The United States has good reasons to remain in Asia, however. As John Mearsheimer and I have explained elsewhere, preventing China from establishing a dominant position in Asia strengthens U.S. security by forcing China to focus more attention closer to home and making it harder (though of course not impossible) for China to project power elsewhere in the world (including areas closer to the United States itself). This strategic logic would still apply if China were to liberalize or if America were to adopt Chinese-style state capitalism. The result, unfortunately, is a zero-sum conflict: Neither side can get what it wants without depriving the other.

Thus, the roots of the present Sino-American rivalry have less to do with particular leaders or regime types and more to do with the distribution of power and the particular strategies that the two sides are pursuing. This is not to say that domestic politics or individual leadership do not matter at all, either in influencing the intensity of the competition or the skill with which each side wages it. Some leaders are more (or less) risk acceptant, and Americans are currently getting (another) painful demonstration of the harm that incompetent leadership can inflict. But the more important point is that new leaders or profound domestic changes are not going to alter the inherently competitive nature of U.S.-Chinese relations.

From this perspective, both progressives and hard-liners in the United States are getting it wrong. The former believe that China poses at most a modest threat to U.S. interests and that some combination of accommodation and skillful diplomacy can eliminate most if not all of the friction and head off a new cold war. I’m all for skillful diplomacy, but I do not believe it will suffice to prevent an intense competition that is primarily rooted in the distribution of power.

As Trump said of his trade war, hard-liners think a competition with China will be “good and easy to win.” In their view, all it takes is more and tougher sanctions, a decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, a big increase in U.S. defense spending, and a rallying of like-minded democracies to the U.S. side, with the ultimate goal of ending Chinese Communist Party rule. Apart from the obvious costs and risks of this course of action, this view overstates Chinese vulnerabilities, understates the costs to the United States, and greatly exaggerates other states’ willingness to join an anti-Beijing crusade. China’s neighbors do not want it to dominate them and are eager to maintain ties with Washington, but they have no desire to get dragged into a violent conflict. And there is little reason to believe that a supposedly more liberal China would be any less interested in defending its own interests and any more willing to accept permanent inferiority to the United States.

So what does a more structural view of this situation imply?

First, it tells us that we are in it for the long haul; no clever strategy or bold stroke of genius is going to solve this conflict once and for all—at least not anytime soon.

Second, it is a serious rivalry, and the United States should conduct in a serious way. You don’t deal with an ambitious peer competitor with a bunch of amateurs in charge or with a president who puts his personal agenda ahead of the country’s. It will take intelligent military investments, to be sure, but a major diplomatic effort by knowledgeable and well-trained officials is going to be of equal if not greater importance. Maintaining a healthy set of Asian alliances is essential because the United States simply cannot remain an influential power in Asia without a lot of local support. The bottom line: America cannot entrust the care and feeding of those relationships to campaign contributors, party hacks, or dilettantes.

Third, and perhaps most important, both sides have a genuine and shared interest in keeping their rivalry within boundaries, both to avoid unnecessary clashes and to facilitate cooperation on issues where U.S. and Chinese interests overlap (climate change, pandemic prevention, etc.). One cannot eliminate all risks and prevent future crises, but Washington must be clear about its own red lines and make sure it understands Beijing’s. This is where unit-level factors kick in: The rivalry may be hard-wired into today’s international system, but how each side handles the competition will be determined by who is in charge and by the quality of their domestic institutions. I would not assume that America’s will fall short, but I wouldn’t be complacent about that either.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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