Since early February, the hype and hysteria surrounding the so-called Chinese spy balloon in the United States has been frenzied and near hysterical, which is unbelievable. Following the Trump administration’s identification of China as a “strategic competitor,” the Biden administration has placed greater emphasis on great power competition with China. Some radical hawks even advocate taking a page out of the Cold War playbook to contain China’s rise.
Although U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that America doesn’t seek a new cold war with China, his policies toward China in the economic and scientific fields are increasingly cold war-tinged. This raises the question of whether we are slipping silently into a new cold war after all. In my view, we do not need a new cold war from any perspective.
First, the history of the last Cold War proves that the term does not mean no war. After all, there were hot wars during the Cold War. Whether the war was a cold confrontation fought in peacetime or a hot war fought in blood, human society paid a huge price. In the case of the United States, for example, according to a report in USA Today, the Korean War in the 1950s cost the U.S. military 36,574 lives and about $390 billion. In the 17-year-long Vietnam War, 58,220 U.S. troops were killed, at a cost of $844 billion. These brutal wars, fought in the name of so-called freedom, became a horrific nightmare for the Cold War generation.
Although there was no direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, both sides spared no effort to support proxy wars around the world. Moreover, each side built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, which was enough to destroy the planet dozens of times. The balance of nuclear deterrence based on mutually assured destruction (MAD) was nothing more than a confrontation between great powers with the entire human race held hostage. The Cuban missile crisis in1962 brought humanity to the brink of nuclear war and annihilation. Therefore, to glorify the Cold War with ulterior motives and ignore its tragic costs and consequences is not only dangerous but also a misinterpretation of history and misleading to the public.
Second, the narrative that the United States and the West won the Cold War is the result of a self-aggrandizing and self-glorifying exercise. It must not be the historical mirror or logical starting point for a new cold war. Although historians have long debated the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one can deny that the accumulation of internal problems during its long and perverse socioeconomic development combined with a series of poor decisions and eventually led to the self-destruction of this vast empire.
For example, the Soviet Union placed too much emphasis on heavy industry in its economic development, resulting in a serious structural imbalance. Political reforms in the Soviet Union also struggled, with the ruling party losing its ability to reinvent itself and the top echelons becoming corrupt and severely disconnected from the masses. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also accelerated by the struggle for power between Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev in the later years. In its foreign policy, the Soviet Union became increasingly militaristic and chauvinistic, not only engaging in an arms race with the United States but also hastily invading Afghanistan in 1979, which became a huge burden that eventually crushed the empire.
Clearly, these problems were not so much a consequence of U.S. Cold War policy but more the result of internal decision-making. In his book “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union,” the Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy notes that U.S. President George H.W. Bush worked against the collapse of the Soviet Union until it was literally on the brink. It was only after Gorbachev’s resignation that U.S. politicians began to declare the collapse to be a victory of U.S. policy. This is mere “picking the peach.” Thus, the narrative that the West won the Cold War through smart strategy is simply not true. Similarly, the rhetoric that the U.S. will win a new cold war is fanciful, or at least overly optimistic.
Third, the new cold war approach to great power competition with China is something like the ancient Chinese fable of the man who marked his boat so he could return later to find the sword he had dropped into the water. The old markers have moved.
China’s development model is completely different from that of the Soviet Union: It is one of openness and dynamic economic growth. China’s growth has been fueled by an open market economy and mutually beneficial cooperation, which has not only been recognized by most countries around the world but has also created deep economic interdependence. Over the past 40 years, the Communist Party of China has demonstrated tremendous openness and flexibility, as well as an amazing capacity for self-innovation.
In addition, Sino-U.S. relations are different from the U.S.-Soviet relations that isolated the two from each other back then. As of 2019, two-way investment between China and the U.S. has come to nearly $250 billion, and the total trade in goods between China and the United States is expected to reach $690.6 billion in 2022. This sort of cooperation was unimaginable between the U.S. and Soviet Union back then, when the Iron Curtain was in place.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, in 2018, 5.15 million people traveled between China and the U.S., and 425,000 Chinese students of all types were studying in the U.S., making China the No. 1 source of international students. Finally, China has not positioned itself diplomatically as “anti-American.” Apart from its long-standing demand for the reunification of Taiwan, it has always pursued a diplomacy characterized by non-interference in international society, carefully avoiding any involvement in military conflicts or proxy wars.
A new cold war with China would not only cause American companies to miss out on China’s huge market opportunities but would also force China to react with more realism and become an adversary of the United States. This is unnecessary.
Fourth, because of the rapid development of the technological revolution and economic globalization, the international environment during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War has undergone fundamental changes.
With the emergence of social media and information technology, the iron curtain of information constructed by Western countries during the Cold War as part of an ideological confrontation has become ineffective. No matter how much some Western media distort and denigrate China, they cannot erase the tremendous development strides of China in recent years. More important, China’s tremendous achievements, made through market reforms, openness, cooperation, mutual benefit and win-win development, have a natural international appeal and moral legitimacy. The Western media’s denigration of China’s development achievements is likely only to further weaken its credibility in the developing world.
Moreover, because of the deep interdependence that has emerged between China and the rest of the world over the past 40 years, more countries are refusing to choose sides. Even the U.S. cannot truly decouple itself from China.
Last but not least, the international community today faces a range of global challenges — climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, transborder crimes and much more. In a global village that seems to be getting smaller, no single sovereign state can address all these challenges alone without effective international cooperation.
Advocates of a new cold war are not only ignorant of history but also lack imagination for the future. They show unprecedented cognitive bias and strategic poverty when confronted with the rise of China, a phenomenon that is beyond Western historical experience. Whether it is the old Cold War or a new cold war, the essence is still a confrontation between great powers, one that doesn’t start and finish overnight. Nor can it be confined to certain areas.
At a time when human society has entered the era of nuclear and intelligent weapons, who can guarantee that such a confrontation will not escalate out of control and lead to the destruction of humanity? In a word, we do not need a new cold war, for the well-being of humanity today — or for tomorrow.