Isabelle Hupez | April 19, 2019
Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War
A Relationship on the Rocks
In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, 2020 presidential candidate and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren boldly asserts, “China is on the rise, using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression.” While Warren’s statement is provocative, it is hardly new rhetoric. In fact, Washington has been increasingly emphasizing its concern over the future of American hegemony, and there is growing bipartisan support to check China’s power. The seemingly precarious state of Sino-U.S. relations has commentators in both Washington and Beijing raising concerns of a new cold war. While bilateral relations have not yet escalated to that level, it would not be surprising if – in the near future – the growing friction between the two major powers intensified to the status of a cold war.
Fueled by Washington’s desire to contain the spread of Communism, the Cold War was an ideologically struggle that manifested itself into a fight over geopolitical power and technological advancement, resulting in a nuclear arms race and American military involvement abroad. Pressure points between the United States and China run parallel to the issues debated during the Cold War. The strategic fight over 5G technology, the escalating trade war, and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are just a few of the major issues causing this tense relationship. And although the turn of the twenty-first century has presented a number of new global challenges, the United States’ criticisms of China and the economic and technological competition between the two states is largely similar to the US’ struggle with the Soviet Union. As such, China’s rising position as a major world power has Washington on edge, with President Donald Trump going as far as identifying China the US’ “strategic competitor” in his first national security strategy (2016). Torn between maintaining its economic relationship and asserting its political power, Washington is threatened by China’s rapid economic development, increased technological advancement, and active engagement abroad. The BRI and Made in China 2025 are two major projects that Washington has identified as potentially threatening. Paralleling American concerns over the Soviet’s post war expansionism in Eastern Europe, Washington has challenged BRI, arguing that Beijing is using infrastructure diplomacy to buy and force political alliances.
Due to the level of interdependence between the United States and China, the risks associated with heightened conflict is severe. The relationship of these two great powers has a profound impact on the international system; thus, it is imperative that both President Xi and President Trump must remain cognizant of the long-term implications of their domestic and foreign policies. Moreover, Washington should apply the lessons it learned from the Cold War when attempting to curtail China’s aggressive posture. It must also simultaneously avoid applying old strategies or frameworks when shaping its foreign policy, for the categorization or comparison of bilateral relations too narrowly defines this complex situation. Characterized by a host of economic, political, and ideological variables, the complexity of the situation between the United States and China should not be oversimplified. To reiterate, the advancement of critical technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, and blockchain are changing the geopolitical landscape. Ideological differences may underpin the tension between Washington and Beijing, but the heightened frictions are a function of shifting power dynamics that have resulted from economic and technological progress. Given this changing landscape, the United States must be prepared to develop a new strategy, one equipped to address the nuanced issues it faces with China.
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