US’ distorted view of the China threat risks creating a cold war nightmare

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After spending a summer in the Soviet Union in 1960, American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner came to believe that the intensifying Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was mostly a product of distorted perceptions.

Bronfenbrenner observed five common distortions: (1) they are the aggressors; (2) their government exploits and deludes the people; (3) the masses are not really sympathetic to the regime; (4) they cannot be trusted, and; (5) their policy verges on madness.

For Bronfenbrenner, this phenomenon was best metaphorised as a mirror image in twisted glass. The problem was that such distortions resulted in dangerous escalations and made rationally unthinkable outcomes, such as nuclear war, seem a potential necessary evil to stop the other side from fulfilling their dark desires.

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There has been much hullabaloo recently about whether the Sino-American relationship is entering a cold war. This is despite there being very little resemblance between this relationship and the US-Soviet relationship.

The Cold War occurred during a clear distribution of power between two superpowers presiding over blocs of aligned, smaller states. There was very little trade between the US and the Soviet Union, and both sides had strong ideologies (democratic capitalism vs Marxist-Leninism).

The Sino-American relationship is quite different. China is rising at an incredible pace but is still decades from reaching the US level of power, and there is no discernible development of a significant Chinese bloc of aligned, smaller states yet.

Furthermore, US-China trade relations, despite obvious setbacks, remain interdependent and neither side can be said to have Cold War levels of ideological conviction.

Despite this, the Sino-American relationship does appear to be at risk of spiralling out of control. And this is where Bronfenbrenner’s original analysis of the psychological aspects of the Cold War can help shed light. Simply put, there appears to be an alarming distortion in how the US and its allies view China.

China is seen as a revisionist power; an aggressor pursuing naked national interests. China’s ruling Communist Party is seen as an oligarchy of political elites that ruthlessly exploits its own population, especially its minorities. China’s population is seen as growing weary of the increasingly totalitarian rule, particularly the use of invasive surveillance technologies.

China is seen as not being a trustworthy partner, accused of stealing intellectual property and interfering in the domestic politics of countries across the globe. And, increasingly, China’s leadership is seen as a group of people that cannot be reasoned with.

What makes these perceptions of China so compelling to many is that there is definitely some truth to all of this. China is a country that is hard to defend at the moment, particularly given some of its internal policies, most notably its treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang, and some of its external policies, such as its bullying of smaller states in the South China Sea.

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However, the significant paranoia creeping into the threat perceptions held by many in the US and its allied countries distorts their view of China – from being a mild revisionist power looking to exert more (regional) influence to representing an existential threat.

Off the back of this, fear of China has been reaching new levels in recent years. China is said to have “magic weapons” that can infiltrate liberal democracies and manipulate them into becoming more favourable to China’s interests. China is said to have been luring smaller partners into debt traps and then using this to force them into unfavourable bilateral relationships. There has even been some speculation that the Covid-19 virus might be a Chinese biological weapon.

China is seen as a country that will stop at nothing to achieve its international aspirations.

Such a nightmarish view of China unsurprisingly necessitates a strong response, and the US, under President Joe Biden, seems willing to commit to strong resistance (which some have likened to US president Harry Truman’s containment policy for the Soviet Union).

Firstly, Biden has kept many of Donald Trump’s policies against China, most notably the phase one trade deal and tariffs that were part of Trump’s trade war against China. Despite criticising Trump’s handling of the relationship before taking office, the Biden administration has not ruled out using more economic statecraft against China.

But Biden’s resistance has gone beyond the trade and economic realm to seep into security and defence. The most obvious example has been the steps taken to strengthen the Quad (officially, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).

Although not an alliance yet, the Quad is a group of like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific – the US, India, Australia and Japan – which seeks to counter China’s growing influence there. Some have even suggested that the Quad could grow into an Asian Nato, given that all four members share the opinion that China is, alarmingly, becoming more belligerent.

Growing paranoia about China can also be found in many close US allies. Australia, after its recent issues with China, has emerged, arguably, as the biggest supporter of China containment. Allegations of China’s meddling in Australia are rife and there is a genuine concern there about what China is capable of, so much so that some have even suggested Australia may need to take the extraordinary step of acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.

Biden’s containment policy could backfire

While the debate rages on as to who or what started the Cold War, Truman’s 1947 decision to adopt a policy of containment against the Soviet Union – built off the back of increasingly paranoid threat perceptions in Washington – irreparably damaged the relationship and straitjacketed both sides into decades of animosity and competition.

China is not an innocent bystander (neither was the Soviet Union) and many of its actions deserve a strong international response. But one should be wary of distorting the China threat and of the potential of these distortions to lead to policies that could unleash another cold war, especially given the global costs of such an eventuation.

Nicholas Ross Smith is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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