Isabelle Hupez | April 19, 2019
Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War
The Eve of a New Cold War
There are two basic questions that need to be considered here before stepping into a detailed discussion. First, is a new Cold War between China and the United States necessary? Certainly not; instead, both the Obama and Trump administrations have had opportunities to build an informal concordat with China, such as a “G-2” alignment. Second, although the new Cold War may not be needed, that may not stand in the way of its inevitability. For example, since Hu Jintao stepped down from his presidency in 2013, his successor, Xi Jinping, has been busily turning back the clock on market-oriented reforms and strengthening state control of the economy. This has been accompanied by a centralizing of political power, tightening of freedom of speech and planning to booster technological development through the “Made in China 2025” initiative. These changes, together with China’s dealings with the United States over the past 40 years, have set the stage for conflict in U.S.-China relations.
There has not been any official announcement of a Cold War yet, although the current state of bilateral relations has already born some resemblance to that earlier period. As with the previous Cold War, the United States and its rival are engaged in an accelerating race of technologies, focusing on those with an ever-enlarging range and precision, such as artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications, and robotics. The concern in Washington is that the improvements and achievements of the Middle Kingdom in these areas will lead to a spillover of autocratic conduct beyond its borders, especially to nearby nations in the thrall of its growing economic power and influence. Overall, one essential idea is clear, the Chinese insist fiercely on their right to follow their own developmental path. In the face of this staunchly-held position, the Trump administration has been keen on disrupting and even crippling Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan, an ambitious project to achieve mastery in key technological sectors of the global economy, something that would indeed bring China closer to that goal of parity, but which Trump and his associates are determined to sabotage. In summary, for China’s leaders the idea of falling behind in the technology race is a recipe for another century of humiliation at the hands of the West. It is, therefore, not merely a competitive challenge for the country, but a potential threat to its future status as a great power.
Among the differences between U.S.-China relations and relationship between the United States and the USSR, the most crucial would be the boundaries of peace and war, which are already blurred and even disappearing as both rivals have engaged in what could be thought of as competition by other means, efforts that could include trade wars and cyber-attacks.
When President Trump, for instance, announced import tariffs and other economic sanctions against China for the first time, he described his intent as an attempt to overcome the unfair advantages that China had gained in bilateral trade. As he put it in September 2018 “For months, we have urged China to change these unfair practices, and give fair and reciprocal treatment to American companies.” Along with this, he assumed the practical task of introducing tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. Looking at the development of this situation, it is obvious that the escalation of a trade war is also aimed at slowing down Chinese economic growth and keeping Beijing from achieving a balance of power with the United States as a major world actor. The Trump administration seeks, as the New York Times’ Neil Irwin observed, to “isolate China and compel major changes to Chinese business and trade practices. The ultimate goal is to reset the economic relationship between China and the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, in the post-Cold War World, cyberspace has become a combat arena of growing importance yet still an almost uncontrollable jungle. China is believed to steal technological secrets from the United States through cyber-attack, including data for the design and development of advanced weapons systems. However, the United States has also participated in aggressive cyber activities, including the advanced and unprecedented Stuxnet cyber-attack in 2010, which temporarily crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. It remains unknown as to what degree U.S. cyber attacks have been directed against China, but under a new National Cyber Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration in August 2018 such a strategy will become far more likely.
With the structural discrepancy between China and the United States, which has been accumulating for decades, neither a Democratic nor a Republican successor in the White House is likely to reverse President Trump’s China policy. At the same time, nor is President Xi likely to take a conciliatory step backward rather than aggressive one forward into confrontation. To make the situation more problematic, there is scarcely any willingness and desire between the two rivals to satisfy the needs and concerns of the other side. The shared expectation for the future has almost entirely dissolved and been replaced by increasingly conflicting goals. Instead of finding common ground, the leadership of both sides is allowing the differences in culture, governance and history to push the two of them further apart. It’s probably one more frustrating similarity between two giant rivals today and their “pioneers” in late 1940s.
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