Isabelle Hupez | April 19, 2019
Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War
China and U.S. at the Crossroad: Is This the Beginning of a New Cold War?
In the past year, the relationship between China and the United States has entered an age of confrontation, over trade and investment policies, over technology, and over geopolitical influence. Many thus have been talking about the possibility of a new Cold War between the two. To certain extent, the conflicts do look similar to the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR, but from my perspective there remain some fundamental differences.
It is undeniable that China and the United States are competing broadly on the world stage right now. Economically, the two are competing from 5G telecommunications construction to intellectual properties to trade and investments. Ideologically, China is gradually gaining confidence about the authoritarian model that is different from the Western liberal model of governance. Strategically, China’s fast growing military and global presence definitely will upset many in Washington. All of these could lead to a Cold War style confrontation due to the lack of communication and lack of mutual trust, but I remain positive about a more peaceful future between the two countries.
First of all, China and the United States are deeply interwoven in the global system, and neither side can afford to cut off all the connections with each other. At the time of Cold War, it is fair to say the Soviet Union and many of its allies were in a different international trade network from the United States, thus the confrontation did not have such an enormous effect on the economic side. However, the world trade system and supply chain is starkly different now, each country becomes an indispensable part of the supply of merchandises. Of course it is still possible to relocate all the supply chain back to their own allies for both China and the United States, but the risk is so high that no country would be able to afford. Shown by the current U.S.-China trade talks, both countries’ representatives are crystal clear about the cost to disengagement, and that is the reason why the trade talk continues despite all the opposition and rhetoric.
Secondly, from my perspective, the world has become much more multi-polar than during the Cold War. Ideological conflict was one of the dominating differences between the Soviet bloc and the U.S.-led bloc, in which both tried to prove their political structure was more universally superior. Nowadays, I would argue that even though the United States and China are still different in terms of ideology, the difference is not stark enough to divide the world into two confronting blocs again. For instance, many in China now consider the Reform and Open policy an adoption of market economy, and China’s current autocracy is often compared with South Korea in the 1980s. Furthermore, different from the USSR, neither does China see subverting countries as a mission, nor does China pose military threat to most of the countries. Thus even if the United States wants to confront China directly, it is hard to say whether U.S.’s allies would unhesitatingly cut off all relations with China.
Finally, I’d like to argue that China is still a developing country and its priority is still to maintain stability and the status quo. From my perspective, China has neither the strength nor the wish to confront the United States in a Cold War style. As I read through the articles about the U.S.-China New Cold War (https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/01/the-new-cold-wars-warm-friends/ and https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/07/a-new-cold-war-has-begun/) for example, I feel that some of the authors are just automatically looking at China from their perspectives on the former Soviet Union, portraying China as an aggressive newcomer that tries to overthrow the leading position of the United States at any cost, but the real China is much more complicated than that. Although China indeed is also a one-party authoritarian state, it has embraced forty years of market economy and most of its citizens has been exposed to the world through Internet despite all the censorship. The power of citizens and middle class now is strong enough to influence the policies and guidelines of the party and the state, and a recent example would be the debate about state-owned enterprises. Amid the trade disputes, the term “国进民退”[State-owned companies step forward, private companies step down] was widely used and campaigned by the official media and some authorities, but the guideline immediately prompted such a fierce a nationwide public backlash that President Xi had to hold a conference to reassure the public his “unwavering support for private companies” (http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2018-11/01/c_1123649488.htm). When analyzing Beijing’s attitude in this relationship with the United States, one should not forget about the hundreds of million citizens who have benefited from the previous economic expansion and who are unwilling to see a Cold War that will threaten their safety and wealth.
In all, I cannot guarantee a New Cold War will not break out between China and the United States, but I do believe the current situation is very different from the U.S.-USSR relationship in the Cold War. Despite all the differences and disagreements, the two countries remain vital partners in a wide range of areas, and only more communication and cooperation can keep us away from a New Cold War.
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