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A New Cold War? Not likely.

Aug 28, 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Recent months have revealed that the international community is worried about the prospects for China-U.S.  relations. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on July 23 has caused worldwide concern as a declaration of a new cold war.

Despite all the trumpeting, however, a new cold war scenario will exist only in the minds of some U.S.  politicians. It will not become the new reality because the conditions for it simply do not exist in today’s world.

The Cold War can be defined generally as a 50-year geopolitical confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States featuring a competition of ideologies and efforts to build alliances on both sides. The term “cold” is used because there was no military conflict directly between the two superpowers, but they each supported regional proxy wars. The economic links between the two werre minimal, even if there were any, which one reason the standoff could can last for so long.

As they introduce the idea of a new cold war, some U.S. politicians spin the current China-U.S. relationship in the same terms as the U.S.-Soviet one of the past. They even seem bent on steering future U.S.-China relations into a new cold war scenario for purposes of building a new bloc of countries to contain or confront China. For this purpose, high-level U.S. officials, including Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, traveled to some European countries to persuade them to support a policy aimed at containing China — for instance, to persuade them not to cooperate with China’s high-tech giant Huawei.

Even though today’s China and U.S. are two of the most influential countries in global politics, however, it does not mean that they will necessarily plunge into a new cold war. The prediction is based on various false assumptions, if not just barefaced political propaganda. The conditions for a new cold war actually do not exist.

First, it is not realistic to decouple the U.S. and China economically. Economic disengagement was once a feature of the U.S.-USSR confrontation. Since economic ties were minimal, security considerations became the sole factor defining the relationship. Scant opposition at home allowed their confrontational policies to continue.

By talking about decoupling China and the U.S., some U.S.  politicians might really want to build the foundation for a more confrontational future strategy on China. But talking is much easier than doing. Despite obstructions on the U.S. side, China has become an essential part of theinternational market for the U.S. and a significant destination for investment. Moreover, it will never be easy for American consumers to give up quality products at low prices, or for workers to give up job opportunities, or for corporations to give up profits.

Despite complaints about China, the U.S. should be well aware that China is the only major power that has clearly defined a win-win approach as the underlying principle for developing economic relations with other partners, including the U.S. And China has taken serious measures to reduce its trade deficit with the U.S.

Second, China-U.S. relations are not loaded with ideological competitions. During the Cold War, the U.S.  and Soviet Union prominently represented different ideologies and political systems. They regarded the promotion of their respective ideologies as their prime mission, and they themselves and their allies and proxies were concerned about the ideological efforts of the other side. In a word, their concerns about ideological and political security created a kind of deep mutual suspicion.

It is true that there are ideological differences between China and the U.S., but today’s problem in this area is more a one-sided promotion of political values by the U.S. rather than a competition with China. U.S.  administrations in different periods have all regarded promoting America’s values abroad as a core mission, and any differences come down to the degree to which they undermine political security in non-Western countries, including China.

But China, while increasingly confident about its political system and path of development, has made it very clear that it respects cultural diversity and respects the rights of countries to pursue whatever road they find suitable for themselves. Put another way, China has no interest in promoting its model or political values in other parts of the world.

China’s policy in this regard has not only been well received in the broad international community but also within the U.S. political establishment. Last year, more than 100 U.S. experts familiar with China affairs issued an open letter expressing their opposition to President Donald Trump’s policy of confrontation. They are well aware that China is not the Soviet Union.

Therefore, China-U.S. relations will be only modestly affected by differences in ideology. Third parties will have no reason to join an effort to build a new alliance against China along ideological lines, nor will the moderate and reasonable part of the U.S. political establishment have reason to support a U.S. policy of confrontation and containment.

Finally, third parties are not eager to take sides, even though they are relevant to future China-U.S. interactions. It is the U.S. that is pushing them to choose. Some U.S. politicians might believe that third parties will most likely stand with the U.S. side under pressure. But things are much more complicated. For instance, Australians, Singaporeans and Europeans have all expressed clearly that not taking sides is in their best interests.

The reasons for this may be numerous. They do not want to lose economic benefits and job opportunities as a result of globalization, or undermine their trade relations with China. They do not feel a threat from China, since China has not, and will not, foist its political values on others. They might also worry about the uncertainties involved in a potential China-U.S. confrontation. In particular, they have reason to worry about the prospect that the U.S.  will betray them. In addition, they might not be certain that the U.S. will eventually prevail in a confrontation with China, as the U.S. has too many misguided policies already.

Not wanting to take sides, the third parties will certainly find ways to avoid the question. For instance, under U.S. pressure Britain has complied with U.S.  requests regarding Huawei; but at the same time it has chosen to close the door of cooperation with Huawei slowly as a way to protect its own economic and political interests.

All in all, a new cold war might only exist in some people’s minds. World conditions are not conducive to a cold war, and neither China nor other nations — nor even the mainstream U.S. political establishment — have much reason to expect one. Maybe, those hardliners sitting in Washington are not really predicting a new cold war with China but are just using the rhetoric to construct an anti-China bloc — and idea that is doomed to fail.

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