US-China relations: Beyond the 'Cold War' cliche

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Comparisons to the Cold War between the US and the USSR are limiting

The meeting between senior Biden administration officials and their Chinese counterparts marks the first face-to-face opportunity to gauge the dynamics of the relationship between the two most important global powers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska on Thursday.

There are no illusions in the Biden team. Ahead of the meeting Mr Blinken noted this was “not a strategic dialogue” and there was “no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements”.

“These engagements,” he noted, “if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.”

Relations between the US and China are the worst they have been for many years and look set to become worse still. Well before his appointment Mr Sullivan, co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs magazine with Mr Biden’s top Asia adviser – Kurt Campbell – which bluntly stated that “the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close”.

It has become commonplace to describe the US-China relationship as a new “Cold War”, a reference to the generation-long rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union that cast a shadow over the latter half of the 20th Century.

How you characterise the relationship between Washington and Beijing matters. It helps to determine the sorts of questions that we ask and the answers that we receive. It sets the parameters for policy options, drawing us down some paths and perhaps blocking off other avenues. Using historical analogies is often said to be helpful in clarifying options, context and dilemmas. But others argue that it can be counter-productive. History does not repeat itself in this way and differences may outweigh similarities.

If by “Cold War” one means a great titanic struggle involving all aspects of national power waged between two incompatible political systems, then clearly the US-China rivalry has echoes of the US-Soviet confrontation.

US President John F Kennedy with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961

As the Biden Administration’s interim foreign policy strategy released earlier this month notes, a more “assertive” China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”. Challenge China whenever necessary and cooperate where possible is the mantra in the Biden White House.

For its part, China takes a similar stance, signalling its desire for a constructive relationship, while continuing to double-down on its own interests – the anti-democracy clamp down in Hong Kong, and the unashamed treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority (described by Mr Blinken as “genocide”).

Beijing rarely wastes an opportunity to point up the ills of the US system. It has seized upon the catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic during former President Donald Trump’s tenure and the storming of the US Capitol to cast its own social and economic model as superior.

So in superficial terms maybe the “Cold War” label appears appropriate, but how useful is it really? In the original Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies were largely isolated from the world economy and subject to strict export controls. In stark contrast, China is a lynch-pin of the global economy, and its own economy is deeply integrated with that of the United States.

While the original Cold War had an important technological dimension – primarily in weaponry and the space race – the new US-China rivalry involves the essential technologies that drive and will drive our societies in the future, such as artificial intelligence and 5G.

The global context is also different. In the Cold War, the world was divided into two static camps, plus a significant non-aligned bloc (which was often seen by the West as favouring the Soviets). Today we have an essentially multi-polar world, but one in which the institutions of the liberal world order are under threat like never before. This gives China leverage in seeking to impose its own world view.

But the Cold War model is deeply dangerous in a fundamental respect.

Part of the recent rivalry between the US and China centred on 5G technology

The Cold War was a zero-sum political struggle where each side denied the legitimacy of the other. While the US and the Soviet Union rarely came to blows, huge numbers of lives were lost in proxy conflicts around the world. In the final analysis, one side was actually defeated – the Soviet system was swept away on the tide of history. And many fear that seeing the US-China rivalry in these stark ideological terms could lead to miscalculation on both sides, and give Beijing in particular all the more reason to go to potentially catastrophic lengths to avoid a possible defeat.

China, though, is not the Soviet Union. It is significantly more powerful. At its peak the Soviet GDP was some 40% of that of the US. China will have the same GDP as the United States within the decade. China is a more powerful competitor than anything the US has faced since the 19th Century. And it is a relationship that is going to have to be managed for perhaps decades to come.

This is the essential rivalry of our times. Cliché and false historical analogy must be set aside. This is not “a Cold War mark II” – in fact, it is something far more dangerous. China is already a peer competitor of the US in many areas. And while not yet a global superpower, it is very much a military rival to the US in the areas that matter most to China’s own security.

President Biden’s China problem is complex. His foreign policy goals prompt conflicting approaches to Beijing. How do you press China on introducing fairer trade practices, on democracy or on human rights, while still hoping to cooperate on tackling climate change and ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region? It is going to be all about managing strategic competition.

But while the nature of the competition should not be understated, neither should it be overstated. The lazy cliché of a rising China and a declining US – like all clichés – has an element of truth. But it does not tell the whole story.

Can the US recover from the Trumpian chaos and revitalise its own democracy? Can it convince its allies that the US is permanently back as a dependable player on the world stage? And can the US rapidly expand its own educational and technological base?

Beijing has in many ways stolen a march on Washington. But will its authoritarian drift hamper its economic progress? Can China cope with slowing economic growth and an ageing population? And will the Communist Party be able to retain the loyalty and support of Chinese society in the long-term?

China has many strengths but also many vulnerabilities. The US has great weaknesses but also a remarkable dynamism and capacity to re-invent itself. But as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated in stark terms, what happens in China does not stay in China. It is a world player that matters to all our lives.

Buckle up! It’s going to be a bumpy ride. And it’s only just beginning.

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