5 Ways the U.S.-China Cold War Will Be Different From the Last One

Guardrails and statesmanship will be even more important this time around.

By , a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
A military propaganda image appears on a giant screen in Beijing on May 18, 2021.
A military propaganda image appears on a giant screen in Beijing on May 18, 2021.
A military propaganda image appears on a giant screen in Beijing on May 18, 2021. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

2022 was arguably the most turbulent and transformative year in international politics since the revolutions of 1989. It was turbulent because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the crisis over Taiwan, but it was transformative in the way the United States acknowledged China as a superpower rival. In the U.S. National Security Strategy issued in October, the Biden administration not only identified China as its most important security challenge, but also declared unequivocally that the post-Cold War era is over. If the United States’ unipolar power position was the defining feature of the post-Cold War era, the shift to a U.S.-Chinese bipolar power structure will shape a new world order.

Ultimately, decisions on war and peace will be made by individual leaders. But to better understand how the new bipolar era might unfold, we must look at its structure: the balance of power, the new system’s origin, and the geographic setting. The U.S.-Chinese rivalry is unique in many ways, and its nature provides us with salient information on the new world order, its stability, and the role that might be played by statesmanship.

In terms of balance of power, the U.S.-China rivalry resembles the Cold War, another antagonism between two superpowers. This is why former Obama administration Asia-Pacific advisor Evan Medeiros called the November meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, “the first superpower summit of the Cold War Version 2.0.” This has raised concerns, particularly in Europe, about the reemergence of competing blocs, and among developing countries about being stuck in the proverbial middle.

2022 was arguably the most turbulent and transformative year in international politics since the revolutions of 1989. It was turbulent because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the crisis over Taiwan, but it was transformative in the way the United States acknowledged China as a superpower rival. In the U.S. National Security Strategy issued in October, the Biden administration not only identified China as its most important security challenge, but also declared unequivocally that the post-Cold War era is over. If the United States’ unipolar power position was the defining feature of the post-Cold War era, the shift to a U.S.-Chinese bipolar power structure will shape a new world order.

Ultimately, decisions on war and peace will be made by individual leaders. But to better understand how the new bipolar era might unfold, we must look at its structure: the balance of power, the new system’s origin, and the geographic setting. The U.S.-Chinese rivalry is unique in many ways, and its nature provides us with salient information on the new world order, its stability, and the role that might be played by statesmanship.

In terms of balance of power, the U.S.-China rivalry resembles the Cold War, another antagonism between two superpowers. This is why former Obama administration Asia-Pacific advisor Evan Medeiros called the November meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, “the first superpower summit of the Cold War Version 2.0.” This has raised concerns, particularly in Europe, about the reemergence of competing blocs, and among developing countries about being stuck in the proverbial middle.

But the new U.S.-China bipolarity is a structural fact and can’t just be wished away. It is the result of several decades of Chinese economic and military growth that has closed the gap to the United States. What’s more, a bipolar power structure is generally considered to be more stable than a multipolar one—so leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has spoken out in favor of a multipolar order, should be careful what they wish for. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry, despite its arms races and tense episodes, was characterized by a high degree of stability and the absence of direct armed conflict between the two superpowers. That’s why historian John Lewis Gaddis called the Cold War era the “long peace.”

That said, all bipolar systems may not be equally stable. There are good reasons to believe that the structure of the U.S.-China bipolar rivalry will make the new era less stable than the Cold War. And when structural stability is weaker, the need for statesmanship and guardrails to manage the system is stronger.

In particular, there are five structural factors that will make the new bipolar era less stable than the Cold War.

First, the U.S.-China rivalry is marked by an unstable power transition dynamic. Historical evidence shows that there is a real danger of major war when a rising power threatens to overtake a declining hegemon—think of the rising German Empire striving for its “place in the sun” in the years leading up to World War I. The Cold War did not have this dynamic: Both the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers from the ashes of World War II, and were peer competitors in military terms from the start. The current situation is different, with China gradually catching up the United States. Moreover, through its economic might, China’s potential as a superpower is greater than the Soviet Union’s ever was. In addition, because the Chinese military is still inferior at this point, there is less room for statesmanship to negotiate arms control agreements; China is unwilling to put a cap on military development that would lock its inferior status in place.

Recent statements have suggested China may already have surpassed the United States in number of nuclear warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in terms of total nuclear inventory—including warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers, as well as inactive nuclear warheads—China’s nuclear stockpile is still relatively small compared to that of the United States.

Second, in contrast to the Cold War, the main theater of the U.S.-Chinese military rivalry is naval, which is inherently less stable and at greater risk of a limited war. The Cold War’s main focus on the European land theater allowed the strategy of massive retaliation to emerge, strongly deterring any attempts to cross the fixed line dividing Europe. The use of military force by the two superpowers in Asian waters is less likely to pose an existential threat to either state or risk a nuclear war. China might use nuclear weapons if invaded, but it is much less likely that Chinese leaders will risk all-out war with the United States if some of their ships are destroyed. This increases the risk of a limited war in Asian waters, as the chances of massive escalation are lower than they were in Europe. But even a limited war at sea between two superpowers could have devastating consequences for regional stability and the global economy.

Third, Taiwan is another source of instability in the new bipolar order. The closest equivalent during the Cold War was the divided city of Berlin, where several tense stand-offs between the superpowers took place. Taiwan represents the greatest risk of a great power war in the era of U.S.-Chinese rivalry, with uncertain escalation dynamics in terms of both geographic spread and weapons use.

Fourth, new warfighting domains in space and the cyber realm provide Washington and Beijing with additional avenues for coercion and disruption. Cyberattacks may range from sabotage, theft, and espionage to a so-called digital Pearl Harbor: a large and sophisticated surprise cyberattack in order to shape the environment in advance of a military conflict or to delay or deter the rival’s response. There is a real risk of inadvertent escalation due to cyber capabilities in a future Sino-U.S. crisis. A similar dynamic is possible also within the space domain, with preemptive strikes on or by satellites leading to an uncertain escalation ladder.

Fifth, contrary to the theory that interdependence reduces the risk of war, the high level of economic and technological interdependence between the United States and China is potentially more conflict prone than the relative autarky of the two blocs during the Cold War. Indeed, the historian Gaddis pointed to the lack of interdependence between the two superpowers as an important factor enhancing the stability of the Cold War rivalry, mainly because not depending on a potentially hostile rival increased a superpower’s sense of security.

If the United States’ unipolar power position was the defining feature of the post-Cold War era, the shift to a U.S.-Chinese bipolar power structure will shape a new world order.

China’s high level of interdependence with the world economy is the very reason why some observers prefer to use labels other than “cold war” when describing the U.S.-China bipolar system—suggesting terms such as competitive coexistence, cold coexistence, or conflictual coexistence. But the level of interdependence in the U.S.-China rivalry leaves more room for economic warfare than was the case during the Cold War; in a bipolar power structure, the two superpowers view mutual interdependence as vulnerability and thus seek to reduce it.

This decoupling process, which is now underway, will create friction: between the two superpowers, among the United States and its allies, and within the international economic order. For instance, the U.S.-Chinese technology war is already leading to a new kind of conflict, with China hitting back at U.S. chip sanctions by launching a World Trade Organization dispute. U.S.-Chinese economic warfare and decoupling will challenge the international economic order in new ways. In addition, concerns voiced by Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron about a new cold war illustrate U.S. allies’ reservations about decoupling.

The steady march of globalization over more than three decades and the currently high level of interdependence between China and the United States are deceiving us. They lure us into believing that great power rivalry in the 21st century is relatively stable and easily managed. However, the five structural dimensions outlined above—a dynamic power transition, an inherently less stable naval rivalry, Taiwan as a hotspot, new space and cyber technologies, and the risks associated with economic interdependence—suggest that the structure of the U.S.-China rivalry may actually be more fragile than that of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. If we remain aware of these five sources of systemic weakness, the two superpowers can to some extent compensate by establishing guardrails.

Developing guardrails will not be an easy task. Arms control will be difficult to achieve in the near future, since China is still catching up militarily. With regard to Taiwan, both Beijing and Washington have practiced strategic ambiguity for decades. Wise and sound statesmanship will be needed on both sides to develop and continually adjust the rules of the new bipolar game. Just like the Cold War, the U.S.-China rivalry and the respective strategies of both superpowers will only evolve over time.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and a former Norwegian diplomat.

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