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Foreign Policy

A Cold War China Doesn’t Want

Jan 08, 2019
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Since China-US relations started to deteriorate in all areas in the spring of 2018. Scholars in China and the US have offered various observations on the state of the bilateral relationship. One opinion is that as the times have fundamentally changed it will be impossible for China and the US to get into a traditional cold war. When interviewed by a Wen Wei Po resident correspondent in Washington DC, Georgetown University professor and former director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council Dennis Wilder gave a rather representative opinion. According to him, even though China and the US hold different positions on many issues, their bilateral relationship is fundamentally different from that during the Cold War. First, the world was then divided into two opposite camps and the majority of countries attached themselves to either superpower, whereas in today’s globalized world the great majority of countries have profound political and economic exchanges with both China and the US and have no intention to choose between the two. Second, proxy wars broke out in many places between the US and the USSR while today’s China has almost no intention to engage in any proxy war with the US. And third, both the US and USSR had ten to twenty thousand nuclear weapons and many Americans feared that the Soviet Union might launch a nuclear strike against the US.

I see a lot of goodwill in these arguments, which are also aligned with the good wishes of the Chinese government and academia. However, this is a misunderstanding of traditional cold war relations. Professor Wilder’s first point was about the size of the Cold War. With the existence of the two military blocs and US-Soviet contention in the Third Word, cold war relations between the two actually occurred in every corner of the world. As a result, the international structure was called a cold war structure. But a cold war relationship is mainly defined by its nature instead of its size. Similarly, Professor Wilder’s second and third arguments were essentially focused on the scale and intensity of military standoffs. But it is difficult to argue that traditional cold war does not exist just because such a scale and intensity has not been reached.

Instead, the traditional cold war relationship should be defined as one based on serious opposition in social system and ideology and mutual ideological repudiation, diplomatic isolation, economic blockade, and military hostilities. It must be stressed that China has no intention to engage the US in a cold war and that the China-US cold war relationship today has been imposed on China by the US.

Exhibit 1. Trump administration’s repudiation of the mainstream Chinese ideology: socialism and its theoretical system. President Trump openly denounced socialism while addressing the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2018. ‘Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay. Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone.’

Exhibit 2. Trump administration’s attempts to diplomatically isolate China, the latest example of which is the signing by Trump on 19 December the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act. The act demands that the Chinese government allow American reporters, diplomats and tourists to go to Tibet without restriction and that the US Secretary of State submit annual reports to the Congress to accuse Chinese officials responsible for the restrictive policy, whose access to the US will then be restricted. Besides, while announcing America’s new African strategy on 13 December 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton talked about the disturbing influence of Chinese investments in Africa and identified China and Russia as America’s competitors in Africa.

Exhibit 3. The Trump administration’s economic and technological suppression of China. Economic exchanges existed even during the Cold War years. For example, the US and USSR signed a trade agreement in 1972. The largest manifestation of the cold war in the economic and technological fields was technical blockade. For example, Western countries created the Coordinating Committee for Export to Communist Countries in 1949. Today, the US suppression of Huawei, restrictions on Chinese students and visiting scholars and measures against Made in China 2025 all something similar.

Exhibit 4. The Trump administration’s military containment of China. On top of intensifying military standoffs in the South China Sea, Trump issued an order on 18 December establishing the Space Command against Chinese and Russian military use of space. On 11 December, the US Senate passed without objections the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act, which urges the US President to regularly sell arms to Taiwan and encourages senior US officials to visit Taiwan.

While pointing out the cold war nature of US policy towards China, I don’t argue for China to adopt the same policy. China has neither the intention nor capability to have a cold war with the US. My purpose is to show that underneath the appearance of a trade war China-US contention actually occurs at the systemic level. While striving for a more optimistic future, the Chinese government should be somber-minded with regard to the underlying difficulties and challenges. Then China will be able to free itself from arrogance or fickleness, devote itself to self-perfection and grow stronger through reform and opening-up.

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