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Foreign Policy

Beware of the New Cold War Derailing China-US Relations

Aug 23, 2018
  • Chen Yonglong

    Director of Center of American Studies, China Foundation for International Studies

There have been constant calls coming from the US for a cold war with China, and there are some people in China who are keen to engage it. Since China became the world’s second largest economy, some of the US political elite have demanded a review of America’s China policy. The crux of their argument is that the US’s China policy since the normalization of relations has failed. Not only has China’s reform and opening up policy not lived up to US expectations, but China is increasingly challenging US hegemony as it develops. China-US relations, therefore, have reached a critical point at which some in the US feel it must regulate, restrict and contain China. Trump’s election to the White House was taken by the  “cold war elite”  that their time had come to play up China as the bogeyman of world peace and a threat to American interests. It also caters to Trump’s zero sum mentality to global trade, ignoring the immense benefits China’s low-cost consumer goods have benefitted not just millions of American consumers for decades, but the whole world at large. Their twisted view of world trade interconnectivity led them to a philosophical cul-de-sac - ie., that they must contain China, and to a lesser extent, other trading allies, with massive tariffs. Trump’s sledgehammer approach to a purely trade issue has led to universal condemnation and resistance. The concern now is that this needless hostility might spread into other areas of bilateral relations.

While China is an unwilling participant in this trade war, it will not run away from it either as shown by its retaliatory tariffs against American imports. The hope now is that the pain inflicted on both sides will force them to the negotiating table at some point. . The immediate problem is that this tit-for-tat  has already gone beyond where people thought it would go and inflicted serious damage all around.

So, will there be a new Cold War between China and the US? The political atmosphere between the two countries is highly abnormal and incendiary, as the specter of the old Cold War looms and the smell of gunpowder pervades. Meanwhile, dignitaries in the US military and intelligence communities are fabricating stories and standing facts on their head by claiming that China is waging a silent cold war and mobilizing all its resources to usurp the US. It does appear, to some extent, that the return to geopolitical tension and jostling for position among the great powers has created the basic conditions for a new cold war. But what’s most concerning are the warnings by some serious scholars that the rivalry between the two powers could be spiraling down towards the Thucydides Trap.   Fortunately, this is not inevitable in view of the fast changing geo-political dynamics on the world stage, mostly favorable to China. Thanks to President Xi’s bold actions, China is now viewed by many as the champion of free trade, sustainable development, efforts to counter climate change and world peace, having supplied the most number of troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. The world community is not blind to China’s benevolent influence, and how it uses its power for the greater good of humanity. With such a track record, it’s hard to see China firing the first shot in a hot war. 

During the old Cold War, the relationship between the two camps was one of extreme antagonism. If one side was provoked, it would seek to attack the other’s institutions, denounce its values, vilify its influence, weaken its strength and subvert its political power. These were methods used by the US to accelerate the demise of and divide the Soviet Union. Times have changed, however. Of the factors that cause cold wars, differences in institutions is one of the basic factors in creating confrontation, though that is not the only or decisive factor; different values and interests are on a par with institutional factors in terms of importance, but these are also not the only or decisive factors. Combined with and more important than these three factors is “seeking hegemony”, “hegemonic maintenance” and “hegemonic bullying”, which are the most basic factors and most fundamental commonalities of all cold wars. This view also explains why a cold war cannot even be avoided when countries operate within the same institutions and have the same value systems. It seems that under Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming a pioneer and practitioner of cold war with countries within a common system.

A defining aspect  of China’s five-thousand-year-old civilization has been its rejection of  hegemony. Indeed, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have always opposed hegemony, and this is clearly reflected in China’s Constitution and its government policies. China hates and opposes cold wars. The US does not as can be seen in its history of foreign interventions. This modern cold war is an American invention. American genes carry on the hegemonic and old Cold War mentality. Domestic politics in the US is highly contentious, divided and divisive, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Fear of failure in the US has inspired some to pick up the Cold War mantle left by their ancestors. But in targeting China, the US has picked the wrong adversary to wage  its cold war. 

A distinct feature of the old Cold War is that it was based on group politics and shared values. Nowadays, the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, and although NATO has gained geopolitical vitality as it has pushed eastward and southward, its centrifugal tendencies and fissions raise serious questions about its efficacy. Trump’s public denunciation  of the EU as an “enemy” was no slip of the tongue. Rather, it reflects a central pillar of the original Cold War: the marginalizing tendency of East-West tension. The US dream of rebuilding the old Cold War alliance will be difficult to achieve, and the US theory of spheres of influence is but a distant dream.

The era of George Kennan is long gone, and anyone with even a modicum of political savvy realizes that globalization, IT application, industry chains and value chains are irresistible historical trends. A cold war is incompatible with the inseparable nature of the international community or free market practices. Some people wish to continue the current extortionate  trade war in the form of a cold war, which goes against the historical tide.  The people and businesses of all countries oppose this. Technological blockades, extreme pressure, punitive tariffs and provoking a currency war will not work against  a country such as China that has already opened and continues to open further its doors to the world.

I would remind those keen on fighting a cold war with China that, like the US, China has its own strategic maneuverability when it comes to geo-economic and geo-security issues. In terms of overall geopolitical strategy, China today has an increasingly clear advantage over the US. Although it appears that the US has many allies, at the G7 and NATO summits this year, Trump spent his time sorting out problems and settling scores, creating enemies everywhere he went. China, on the other hand, pursues a policy of nonalignment, but it enjoys special partnerships with many countries around the world. Working together toward common goals has thus become a new historical trend.

There is also a hidden front within the new cold war. That is, a group that wishes to see China evolve peacefully and for it to change its political persuasion. For this, they pin their hopes on the future  generations. There are indeed some people in China who worship the US, but they have limited influence on  the Chinese people who still believe in constantly striving for self-improvement. It is simply that the path of the socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics is getting wider acceptance because, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  The idea of serving the country  has been ingrained in its people, because the notion of noblesse oblige was part of the ethic of Chinese people since Confucian times.  The successful implementation of  socialism with Chinese characteristics has instilled in  the Chinese people with great pride and gratitude for the untold benefits it brought them.  This has created an impenetrable, albeit intangible, new Great Wall around China that is capable of resisting the erosion of unhealthy thoughts generated inside and outside China. Any attempt to change China's political system or divide the country will inevitably fail.

China will determinedly and unswervingly stick to its chosen path to success. It will continue to expand its cordial international relations with a view to creating a harmonious global community with a shared future, and resolutely opposing and working hard to avoid a cold war. 

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