It's Debatable

Is This the Beginning of a New Cold War With China?

The clash between Washington and Beijing could be the start of a new ideological confrontation—or the inevitable fallout from a power transition.

By Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Policemen march in front of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China on July 26. The Chengdu mission was ordered shut in retaliation for the forced closure of Beijing's consulate in Houston, Texas.
Policemen march in front of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China on July 26. The Chengdu mission was ordered shut in retaliation for the forced closure of Beijing's consulate in Houston, Texas. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma. Is it really almost August?

Usually Washington, D.C., would be slowing down for summer this time of year, but things seem as busy as ever.

Emma Ashford: We’re around day 30 of a heat wave, so is it any wonder everyone is staying inside?

Another change from the average summer: Unlike most election years, there won’t be any big party conventions. When Joe Biden finally decides on his choice for vice president, I guess we’ll learn about it on Zoom?

MK: He was recently photographed holding notes with bullet points about Kamala Harris, increasing speculation that the California senator will be the pick. Guessing the next VP makes for a fun parlor game, but the running mate doesn’t usually matter much in elections beyond their home state, and the leading candidates are mostly from places like California and Massachusetts or Washington, D.C., that are already safely in the Democrats’ camp.

EA: I doubt this election is going to ride on the VP choice! There’s just too much else going on. But from the point of foreign policy, it’s hard to know what to think about the two supposed top choices.

Susan Rice might have a lot of experience in foreign policy, but it’s not clear what her actual views are: She was at the table for Obama administration decisions that tended toward hawkishness and toward restraint.

And Kamala Harris has no foreign-policy experience at all. I suspect both are pretty classic liberal internationalist hawks, but I don’t have a lot of evidence to back that up.

MK: It is interesting, however, that there is a national security policy wonk in the mix. There is hope for one of us to become VP yet!

EA: I suspect this column wouldn’t help either of us in confirmation hearings. But why don’t we move on to the big issue of the week? The Trump administration is taking further steps toward a confrontational China policy. Last week, the White House demanded that the Chinese close their Houston consulate, claiming it was a den of espionage.

MK: It was Chinese President Xi Jinping who turned this into a confrontational relationship. China has been engaged in sharp power practices against democracies around the world, and its decades of intellectual property theft from the West may have been the biggest illicit transfer of wealth in history. I am glad the United States, under Donald Trump, is finally pushing back, including by closing down the Houston consulate.

EA: Look, I have no doubt that the Chinese were engaged in espionage out of the Houston consulate. They have a pretty bad track record of intellectual property theft at this point. Houston’s the center of the oil industry, so it’s a great place for spies to build connections with researchers working on fuels and extraction technologies.

But here’s the problem: Everyone knows that this is happening already. It’s not a new problem. Washington might have closed down the consulate and undermined some ongoing operations. But in retaliation, the Chinese government made the United States close its Chengdu consulate and withdraw some diplomats from China. So the spat damages American intelligence-gathering capabilities, too. Surely it’s better to stick with the devil we know?

MK: The problem isn’t new but, thank goodness, the U.S. approach is. For years, U.S. officials turned a blind eye to this behavior because they hoped China was going to become a big Germany in Asia. But that strategy didn’t work. So, this isn’t a one-off move. The Trump administration has a new, more combative strategy for dealing with China.

EA: Funny you should mention Germany. I view this diplomatic spat with China a bit like the furor a few years back over U.S. intelligence agencies tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. States spy on each other. It’s what they do. And, frankly, we should be happy that they do, since it helps avoid misunderstandings and conflict.

It doesn’t mean I’m happy about Chinese IP theft, but there are ways to deal with it that don’t involve hurting the United States’ own intelligence-gathering capabilities.

And let’s be honest, with this administration, it’s as likely that this decision was driven by a political desire to look tough on China as it was by actual concerns about espionage. It’s part of a much broader pattern.

MK: I’d agree if this were an isolated incident, but the broader pattern I see is one of the Trump administration pursuing a tougher line with China across the board.

The White House released a China strategy in May, vowing to stop China’s “trade secrets theft … and economic espionage.” And four cabinet officials have given big China speeches—most recently there was a good speech from Secretary Mike Pompeo last Friday.

EA: It was certainly an interesting speech. I see that Pompeo is back to describing the Chinese as “communists” again; I guess it plays better than just calling them “authoritarian” in political ads?

MK: Whatever happened to the Cold War practice of calling them the Chicoms?

EA: Pompeo seemed to be trying to draw on a Cold War-era ideal of democracies fighting against a communist threat. But I thought that Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution made a good point: Pompeo’s rhetoric is wholly at odds with the Trump administration’s actual strategy. Pompeo called for an alliance of democracies to resist China.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed those countries and told Xi that he could do whatever he wants. So it’s pretty hard to take this speech seriously.

Much of the criticism of the Pompeo speech was about politics, not policy. People of all political stripes should recognize and welcome good policy when they see it.

MK: I think much of the criticism of the speech was about politics, not policy. Left-leaning foreign-policy experts (some working on the Biden team) rushed to publish their negative appraisals.

I understand they don’t like the Trump administration and think that Pompeo is the wrong messenger for this proposal. But organizing the free world to deal with China makes a lot of sense.

After all, Biden has also called for a Summit for Democracy. Colleagues and I at the Atlantic Council have been calling for an Alliance of Free Nations (here, here, here, and here) for some time, and we were pleased to see this recommendation advanced by the U.S. Secretary of State. People of all political stripes should recognize and welcome good policy when they see it.

EA: I don’t see a threat to the so-called free world from China. I see a series of smaller issues that should concern Western governments: intellectual property theft, Chinese infiltration of telecommunication networks, China’s moves to buy off neighboring states with the Belt and Road Initiative.

But they’re not all equally concerning. Just look at the failures of the Belt and Road: None of its Indian Ocean ports is likely to turn a profit, and a lot of states are increasingly concerned about ending up indebted to Beijing. The whole thing has become a massive money sink. Nor do all these issues affect all democracies in the same way. That’s why democracies are reacting to them in such different ways.

MK: On the contrary, I see a global China challenge and a free world increasingly coming together to meet it. Japan, the European Union, and the United States have all complained about China’s unfair trading practices. Democracies in Europe, Asia, and North America have banned Huawei’s 5G technology.

The Chinese military challenge is most pressing for Indo-Pacific democracies, but even European navies are now sailing ships through the South China Sea to contest China’s illegal territorial claims. Democracies are also concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s threat to freedom and human rights.

This is an ideological challenge. The free world is concerned about China’s autocratic nature. At home, the party is engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs and cracking down on Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms.

EA: The China challenge is about power, not ideology: managing the country’s rise in a way that doesn’t allow it to dominate Asia, doesn’t harm U.S. vital interests, and doesn’t start a war. That’s all. Turning this into some ideological battle doesn’t help with that.

MK: I disagree. This is an ideological challenge. The free world is concerned about China’s autocratic nature. At home, the party is engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs and cracking down on Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms.

Overseas, the CCP is using its power to silence free speech critical of China and exporting facial recognition technologies that help dictators repress their populations. And whether intentionally promoted or not, dictators around the world cite China’s “state-led capitalist” model as justification for how autocratic control can be consistent with economic development.

EA: But that really misses the key distinction between the Soviet Union and China. The challenge from China isn’t ideological in the same way as the Cold War was. Frankly, the Chinese today have no distinct ideology: It’s a mix of old Communist Party structures, capitalist markets, and kleptocratic elite networks.

Perhaps Chinese surveillance technology might be attractive to dictators, but the country itself is not the early Soviet Union, wielding a Comintern in an attempt to turn nearby states to Marxism. Chinese leaders prefer autocracies, I’m sure, but they’re willing to work with anything from absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia to democratic states like Indonesia.

A different situation needs a different response. The Soviet Union’s approach to the world was convert or be crushed. China presents states with a very different choice: Trade with us if you like, but we don’t care too much about your domestic politics.

MK: A new democratic alliance would not only be about ideology, however, but also about power. We are in a much stronger position on trade, technology, human rights, and many other issues if it is a global alliance of democracies on one side of the negotiating table and China isolated on the other.

As I’ve argued before in Foreign Policy, China won’t build a countervailing alliance of autocracies and, even if it does, it will be no match for the 75 percent of global GDP that the free world can bring to bear.

EA: So you’re basically arguing that we’re in a new cold war?

MK: It was only a Cold War because it never went hot. Unfortunately, that is still a real possibility with this rivalry, as the National Defense Strategy Commission report bluntly warned.

EA: I have to say, I hate these analogies, even without making the flippant response that I thought we were already in Cold War 2.0 with Russia. You’re right that it was defined that way in part because it never became a conflict; John Lewis Gaddis famously described it as the “Long Peace.”

Whatever you call it, though, it was structurally very different than today. Two big superpowers and the rest of the world in tatters following World War II is a very different situation than today’s near-multipolarity. And ideologically, China’s strategy is about building power and regime preservation, not about building clones of itself. The analogy just doesn’t hold at anything other than a superficial level.

MK: But even if this is about regime preservation, it is still ideological. Xi knows that if democracy comes to Beijing, he is out of a job. So, he does want to make the world safe for autocracy.

But we agree on the analogies! There was a good book on this a few years ago. With analogical reasoning, people cling to superficial similarities and overlook the underlying differences. But it is often the underlying differences that really matter. Not everything can be boiled down to the next Munich Agreement, the next Cold War, or everybody’s new favorite: the Peloponnesian War.

EA: Yeah, if I hear the phrase “Thucydides Trap” one more time, I’ll scream. The basic concept is drawn from the rivalry between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece.

In a nutshell, it suggests that a rising power and a declining state are likely to end up in a war. But Graham Allison of Harvard did us all a disservice by introducing the concept to the masses and by suggesting that it’s inevitable. To paraphrase James Palmer’s article here in Foreign Policy the other day, read another damn book.

At the risk of beating a dead horse here, it’s not ideological. The Chinese (and the Russians) do want to avoid democratization. Resisting color revolutions has become a core stated component of each of their national security strategies. But that’s not the same as wanting to spread autocracy. One is defensive, the other offensive.

It sounds to me like you’re simply ascribing U.S. goals—spreading democracy—to them. Perhaps the United States is the revisionist state here?

MK: Yes. Shame on the United States for making the world a more peaceful, prosperous, and free place over the past 75 years. We should really knock that off.

And speaking of avoiding overreliance on analogies, the Chinese ideological threat is still a problem, even if it is different from the Cold War.

Which relates to the Thucydides Trap. I have another reason for disliking this argument. It presumes that there is an inevitable power transition between Washington and Beijing, but I doubt that China will ever overtake the United States. As I argue in my new book, I think the Chinese Communist Party will run out of steam and the United States and its allies will successfully renew their global leadership position.

The Chinese (and the Russians) do want to avoid democratization.  But that’s not the same as wanting to spread autocracy.

EA: It’s possible. But it’s worth asking the people of Iraq or Libya how they feel about a more peaceful and free American-led world.

The point is that there are ways to promote democracy or human rights that don’t involve military action. Take the problem of the Uighurs in China, for example. Every time the world learns something new about their plight, it’s worse than the time before. But there’s still no option for a military solution.

Instead, Western leaders should be thinking creatively about ways to tie trade to human rights improvements in China. Or how they might push China to allow Uighur emigration. Or at the very least, barring the import of products from that region.

My point is that it’s not going to help the situation if the United States pursues an overtly confrontational approach to China. The Trump administration’s approach to China is just posturing and confrontation without any realistic solutions.

MK: That is a good set of issues to explore. We should put the new Alliance of Democracies right on it!

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig