Isabelle Hupez | April 19, 2019
Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War
Cold War II is a Fallacy
The current state of relations between the United States and China compares much more favorably to the state of bilateral relations between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War because the United States and China are neither at war nor likely to go to war with each other. While there are issues of concern in U.S.-China relations that require attention and earnest problem solving, there are far more reasons in favor of a peaceful, sustainable bilateral relationship than for war. Of the three C’s: competition, cooperation, and conflict, I firmly believe that only the former two will continue to apply to U.S.-China bilateral relations.
The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension that was marked by open hostility between America and the Soviet collective. Though hostilities did not escalate into open war, the period was marked by clashes, threats, subterfuge efforts that took place covertly and discreetly beneath the surface of international politics. The United States and the Soviet Union never engaged directly in full-scale armed combat, but both supported and managed a number of proxy wars-hence the terminology of a ‘cold’ war. U.S.-China relations to date, while certainly still tension-laden given recent trade disagreements, are in a much better place than the state of U.S.-USSR relations back in the day.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. policy of constructive engagement has improved bilateral relations by establishing official lines of communication between Washington and Beijing and sustaining dialogue during tense periods. Throughout, the United States and China have gradually realized that they share many mutual interests. Unlike between the United States and the Soviet Union, there is no grand ideological conflict of capitalism versus communism. A communist state forty years ago, China today is well integrated in the global economy and boasts an economy that is partly capitalistic in nature. Furthermore, the United States during the Cold War hoped for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the two states were at the center of competing blocs that were isolated from each other; derived of economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural interactions. That reality is a far cry from the current state of affairs between the United States and China where both states are inextricably linked together. Moreover, the United States does not desire the collapse of China because such an outcome would hurt core U.S. interests and negatively affect the global economy. The mutual dependence and bonds between the two foremost economic drivers of the world make war not an impossible outcome, but a highly improbable and unsavory one.
All-consuming war between the United States and China is unlikely to break out because there are no benefits that would justify the costs. The term ‘war’ is often thrown around in a lazy feat of scholarship that remains content with drawing surface-level comparisons. The United States of today is not the same United States of the Cold War. China is definitely not the Soviet Union. More importantly, the geopolitical environment in which the two sides interact is a sea change from the state of global affairs decades ago.
The concept of war has been serially misused by scholars in the field as a result of either ignorance about the precise definition or of calculated efforts to further some policy objectives. The confrontations over trade that dominated headlines for much of last year have often been referred to as war, a trade war. Such labeling is misleading. The United States and China were not involved in a trade war; there were no armed conflicts and neither side officially declared war on each other. It would be more appropriate to call them what they are: disputes. Unfortunately, this manipulation of rhetoric has caught on. Apparently, the United States and China are also about to engage into a space war and a technology war. It is clear that the shift in U.S.-China relations over the past five years has been partly driven by the change in rhetoric. As both sides have been guilty of using harsh and sometimes hostile rhetoric in public, it remains unclear what the end goal of doing so is. One can only hope that those who continually predict or warn of war between the United States and China do not fall victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the world of international relations, dangers are ever present. There is always a possibility of war between state actors but cool heads and wise decision making can ensure that such an outcome remains improbable and unrealized. To navigate pitfalls and prevent U.S.-China relations from entering a downward spiral that could lead to possible conflict, I call on policymakers on both sides to maintain constructive dialogue. Clear communication over core interests and careful management of contentious issues can turn peril into opportunities for mutual gain. Despite bilateral relations taking a turn for the worse in the past few years, I still believe that cooperation and competition remain the name of the game. At the end of the day, the United States and China have far more commonalities than differences. While competition may be inevitable, it is not yet clear the same is true of conflict.
Ivan Solomon | April 19, 2019
Xiaogu Xu | April 19, 2019
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