The idea of “cold war” was only of passing interest to historians before U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Few believed that a new cold war would break out between major countries today.
But the recent flurry of crazy moves by the Trump administration raises fears of such an outcome between China and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech at the Richard Nixon presidential library on July 23, delivering what is known as a new cold war declaration. He announced that the U.S. would build “a new alliance of democracies” to “change Communist China.”
Obviously, some elites and political leaders in the United States, plagued by the lingering mentality of the 20th century’s Cold War, are trying to restart it, only with China as the target, not the Soviet Union, which has already collapsed. Nowadays, it is China that’s defined s a “strategic competitor.”
But if Washington insists on waging a new cold war against China, it may be making the most serious strategic mistake since the end of World War II.
First of all, China is not the Soviet Union of those days. Politically, the Communist Party of China, although it is the ruling party, has freed itself from ideological rigidity and has instead adopted flexible, pragmatic policies. While the country continues to develop its socialist system with Chinese characteristics, it has never sought to export its economic and social models — which, in fact, are not replicable.
Economically, whether the Western world recognizes it or not, the market has played an important role in China’s economic development. As a matter of fact, market forces and openness to the wider world are two significant drivers behind the country’s decades of impressive economic growth. In 2019, its foreign trade amounted to $4.58 trillion, with outbound foreign direct investment reaching $117.12 billion. Today, China is a major trading partner and source of investment for many countries.
More important, China has never defined itself as an anti-American country in its foreign strategy since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in the 1970s. Despite disapproval reflected in some U.S. foreign policies, China has never lent support to a proxy war against the U.S. or sought to form an international alliance against it. In addition, China has no intention of upending the current international system, from which it has reaped huge benefits; rather, it strives to avoid confrontations with the United States and aims to partner with it to enhance the international system.
Second, the world is different from what it was in the early days of the postwar era. After the end of the Cold War, the rapid development of science and technology and global economic integration transformed the world into a global village driven by market forces. The economies of all nations have been intertwined.
In this context, any attempt to unilaterally “decouple” will backfire, and the general public will bear the brunt of such a foolish act. In the age of globalization, no country can address global challenges on its own. Many issues depend on international cooperation, from the rampant COVID-19 pandemic to terrorism, from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation and transnational crime.
Finally, in the Information Age, it makes no sense to build opposing camps by manufacturing ideological confrontations. On one hand, the moral high ground and soft power that the United States has acquired in the postwar era are on the decline. The ideals that it champions, such as freedom, democracy, equality and human rights, have lost their luster due to political polarization and racial discrimination within the country, and its hegemony on the world stage is cracking. Domestically, as a result of a pandemic that seems out of control, some American elites have begun to reflect on problems in the U.S. social and political systems.
On the other hand, unlike the Cold War era, creating ideological confrontations through an information monopoly leads nowhere. After all, because of technology, people-to-people exchanges have reached an unprecedented level.
No matter how some people in the United States smear the CPC and attack China ideologically, it is impossible to erase the fact that the CPC has led hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and achieved success in pandemic control. It is likewise impossible to incite an ideological shoot-out in the international community.
With China’s rapid rise in power, conflicts of interest between the world’s two largest economies in the political, economic, technological and diplomatic sectors have grown more pronounced. However, China is not a natural enemy of the United States. At present, both countries need to stay calm and leverage their wisdom to manage their conflicts, rather than start a new cold war.
While it is easy for Americans to shift the blame to China, this is not the solution to the real problems faced by the United States. Anyone in Washington who continues to see China as an enemy will definitely find a rival never before seen. In short, a cold war would be the most serious U.S. strategic mistake since the end of World War II, and U.S. citizens and the wider international community would pay a heavy price for it.