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Foreign Policy

The US Must Avoid a New Cold War with China

Oct 31 , 2018
  • Martin Wolf

    Chief economics commentator at the Financial Times

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What has been the most important event of 2018 so far? Arguably, it was the speech on US-China relations by Mike Pence, US vice-president, on October 4. It stated America’s intention to confront a rising China across the board: over its “interference in American politics”; over its trade and investment policies, alleged theft of intellectual property and plans for industrial development; over its cyber attacks; over security; over its “debt diplomacy”; and “culture of censorship”. The aim would be “to reset America’s economic and strategic relationship with China”, he said, “to finally put America first”.

The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, an expert on China, denies we are at the start of a “new cold war”. He is right, if by that we mean a conflict identical to that between the US and the Soviet Union after the second world war. But these differences, albeit real, are not that encouraging. Friction between the US and China might be even more damaging than the cold war.

The latter did at least stay relatively “cold”, unlike the two world wars that preceded it. It was also largely limited to ideology and security. The damage a US-China conflict could do to management of the global commons and global prosperity might be vast, partly because the two countries are so interwoven. A new strategic rivalry might also become “hot” — over North Korea, Taiwan or the South China Sea, for example. Remember that the cold war almost went hot over Cuba, in 1962.

Cold war or not, this strategic conflict looks deep and enduring. “[We] will not relent until our relationship with China is grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty,” said Mr Pence.

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Who is to judge when this nirvana is achieved? The US, of course, is the answer. Under what circumstances might it agree that its aim is reached? Given the Manichaeism of much American thinking, a plausible answer is: not before China collapses. Note, too, that disappointment with China’s trajectory is not limited to the right. Significantly, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, officials in Barack Obama’s administration, have argued in Foreign Affairs that “engagement” with China has failed to turn it into the politically and economically open country the US had hoped for.

In sum, we seem to be at the start of a lasting conflict between the US and China. The US says it wishes to transform China. China fears, with some reason, that the US wants to halt its rise. “Realist” thinkers on foreign affairs will argue that the conflict is no surprise: in the anarchic world of great power politics, such a struggle for primacy is inevitable, argues John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Often war ensues, replies Harvard’s Graham Allison.

These prophecies may be “realistic”. But the behaviour could also be insane. Maybe the first world war was inevitable, but who thinks it was a good idea?

The US has good reason to avoid the open-ended conflict Mr Pence declared. One reason is that, unlike the Soviet Union, China is not in truth an ideological rival, except to the extent that it embodies the autocracy President Donald Trump admires. Another reason is that conflict is likely to be costly, even if open war is avoided, as the Chinese-American scholar Minxin Pei argues.

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Who now believes the US would wage such a conflict rationally? Mr Trump’s destructive trade policies reinforce the doubts, as do his assaults on America’s allies. The US also needs to recognise that China has huge assets: the size of its population, its dynamic economy, and its significance as a market for many countries. Of course, China also has many significant weaknesses. But the hope that China will just surrender or disappear, as the Soviet Union did, is absurd. (See charts.)

How then might the rivalry be managed? I would suggest five principles.

First, recognise that China is not “ours” to make or remake. It belongs to the Chinese and to nobody else.

Second, realise that China’s political organisation is likely to remain different from the west’s indefinitely. Today, alas, we even seem more likely to become like China than the other way round.

Third, focus attention on precise and measurable behaviours that affect others and do so in principled and consistent ways. Do not seek to halt China’s development. That is plainly wrong.

If we want China to obey trade rules, how about doing so ourselves? If we want them to recognise intellectual property rights, why not admit that these can be excessive and burdensome? If we want to make a big issue of human rights, what about recognising our own faults? The Chinese know hypocrisy when they see it.

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Fourth, recognise that China is a rival in some ways but also a vital and essential partner. Maintaining the stability of the world economy and managing climate change will be impossible without co-operation with China. Do not make the relationship mostly about the strategic rivalry. Balance China’s power where necessary, while co-operating with it where essential.

Fifth, understand the value of alliances. This is about trust. If the US wishes to encourage countries to resist Chinese encroachment on their sovereignty, it needs to be seen as a reliable ally. Under Mr Trump it has not been.

Finally, have confidence in our values of freedom and democracy. Understand that it is on the creation of new ideas that we depend, not the protection of old ones. That in turn depends on freedom of inquiry and openness to the best talent from around the world. If western countries lose these, they will lose the future. Our enemy is not China. As the greatest US president of the 20th century declared: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

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