It is wrong to describe relations between China and the US as a new cold war. This is very different. It is a comprehensive competition to determine the nature of the 21st century. And the outcome will be entirely different from what happened before.
It is four and a half years since previous US President Donald Trump assumed office, marking the beginning of the US assault on China. The first six months of Biden’s presidency have seen a continuation of America’s anti-China stance. The fundamental line of continuity between Trump and Biden is their position on China. This supports the argument that America’s shift on China, far from being some kind of Trumpian quirk, is in fact deeply rooted in American politics and society. We should not be surprised by this. The benign period of cooperation between the US and China from 1972-2016, 44 years altogether, was underpinned on the US side by two propositions: first, that China’s economic rise would never challenge America’s economic ascendancy; and second, that as China modernised, it would inevitably Westernise and in time become a Western democracy. By 2016, it was patently obvious that both assumptions were wrong. China’s economy was already on a par with America’s; and China’s political system, far from showing signs of Westernising, remained highly distinctive, was able to deliver extraordinary results, and was increasingly popular.
In the face of this, America came to the view that rather than seeing China as a relatively benign partner, it should instead regard China as a threat to its global primacy and find ways to contain, weaken and undermine it. America had never previously seen China as a threat to its status as the No 1 power in the world, nor had it in its entire history. We should not underestimate just how important being No 1 is to America’s sense of identity. It has been fundamental since 1945 but stretches much further back in the form of America’s sense of missionary purpose. This explains why America’s shift against China has commanded consensual support at home and why we should expect this period to last for a long time, at least two decades, perhaps rather longer. The problem for America, however, is that its position in the world, relative to China, and relative to the wider world, is only going to get weaker, as we have already seen in dramatic fashion this century. America’s primacy simply cannot survive, but for America to come round to accepting this will be a very traumatic, conflictual and long-drawn out process.
How should we describe this new phase in US-China relations that started in 2016? In the West it is commonly called the New Cold War. I think this is mistaken. It is so different to the original cold war to be misleading. I understand why it is popular in the US. They won the cold war. In fact, it was the last thing they actually won. To call it a new cold war gives the illusion that it is similar to or the same as the first cold war and will end in the same way. None of this is true. The USSR was never even vaguely an economic match for the US, at its peak the former was perhaps 60 percent of America’s size. In contrast, China is already on an economic par with the US and will be much bigger in one decade, let alone two, when it will be more than double. A defining characteristic of the first cold war was the division of the world into two hermetically sealed, antagonistic blocs. In contrast China is deeply integrated into the global economy, in some respects even more than the US. It cannot be excised from the global economy. Its vast array of trading partners around the world would make such exclusion impossible. Military competition was another defining feature of the old cold war that is not the case now: China will not go down the same blind alley that the USSR did. Ideological division, likewise, was crucial in the first cold war but is much less relevant now, certainly in anything like the same form.
If not a new cold war, then what? We are witnessing a new kind of competition between China and the US, which is comprehensive in character and embraces a very wide range of issues, including the economy, technology especially digital technology, governance and leadership, social inclusivity, the relationship with the developing world, climate change and pandemics. The bottom line is which modernity – US or China – will be most effective and beneficial for the world in the twenty-first century. The histories of the two countries, of course, are entirely different, one rooted in the nation-state and imperial expansion, the other primarily a civilization-state rooted in thousands of years of history. This aspect, too rarely discussed, is fundamental to the nature of the competition between the two. This brings me to one final difference between the first cold war and the present contest: the former was a binary conflict in the Manichean tradition, with the final outcome being a winner and a loser. This competition will not be the same. One country – I believe China – will gain the upper hand, but essential to any settlement will be a new synthesis between China and the US, a new kind of relationship, rather than the knock-out punch which ended the first cold war.
What are the ramifications of all this? I would make two points. First, we should prepare ourselves for the long haul. This phase will in all likelihood last at least twenty years, but we should not be surprised if it is more like forty years: the benign phase of the US-China relationship, after all, lasted 44 years. This means we must always think strategically, never allow the present to obscure the future. In the heat of 2019-20, when China was under particularly brutal assault, and tit-for-tat exchanges became seemingly commonplace, the overriding importance of a long-term perspective sometimes became blurred. Tit-for-tat might raise the spirits of committed supporters but they usually alienate the non-committed. Winning hearts and minds is a long process, not something achieved by a coup de grace.
Which brings me to my second point. In the first cold war the world was divided into two blocs and irredeemably polarised. This is not the case now and will not become so. Even what might be called a Western bloc (NATO, 5 Eyes, US, EU, etc.,) is not a bloc. Nor is there a China bloc. Nor does China seek to have a bloc. In other words, unlike in the first cold war, a lot of the world, most in fact, is relatively non-partisan and open-minded. Take Europe. It is most certainly not in the same place as the US. It is shifting away from the US at both a popular and establishment level. It will be very difficult to shift US opinion in the next few years but that is not true of Europe. China has to find new and better ways of engaging with the European populations: the watchwords should be “listen, reach out, and dialogue”. Dialogue was the antithesis of the cold war. But dialogue is fundamental to the new phase: hearts and minds are crucial. And what is true for Europe is true elsewhere, especially in the West but also in the developing world.