China and the US: the new cold war?

Alexander Rosas is a certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center with a focus on International Politics. Jesse Adler is a HNC Certificate/SAIS M.A. student currently completing his Certificate at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center before starting at SAIS DC next fall. We both offer our viewpoints on the state of US-China relations after Vice President Mike Pence’s speech to the Hudson Institute. Alexander Rosas argues that the current state of affairs does not look like the start of a new cold war, whereas Jesse Adler argues that the US.-China relationship the current state of affairs is already on that trajectory.

Are we jumping to cold war conclusions?

By Alexander Rosas

NANJING, China When Vice President Mike Pence gave his speech on China at the Hudson Institute, the question on the minds of many students  here at the HNC was, “What does this mean for U.S.-China relations?” While some feared that it indicated escalating tensions between the two countries, I would argue we are not, yet, witnessing the start of a new cold war.

To understand what a new cold war would look like, we must understand the structure of the U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War. At the heart was the ideological battle between the Soviet Union’s communist model and the West’s idea of freedom and democracy. From the U.S. perspective, the Soviet Union was a territorial expansionist and an ideologically backwards power that threatened the existence of the Western liberal world order.  The Soviet Union saw itself at war with capitalism and sought to create allies in Marxist movements around the world, as mentioned in George Kennan’s Long Telegram. It was a fight between the liberal West and the communist East. In essence, ideological competition fueled the start and existence of the Cold War.

With this in mind, it is hard to find similarities between the Cold War and the present-day conflict  between the U.S. and China. Current tensions are not ideological, and neither side desires to eliminate the other. The U.S. government has no interest in causing the collapse of China’s ideological system or its government despite U.S. insistence on democracy and human rights. It does, however, wish to compete with China, but as the 2017 National Security Strategy stated and Pence re-emphasized, “Competition does not always mean hostility.” In fact, the Trump administration still supports a mutually beneficial relationship based on reciprocity and fairness.

China, meanwhile, is protecting its own interests and acting reciprocally. It has repeatedly called for dialogue to resolve the current trade war issues. China also continues to emphasize its belief in win-win cooperation. Even during these tense times, both countries still signal their willingness to cooperate with each other.

Trade and education are still areas on which both countries continue to cooperate, despite increased scrutiny in recent years. According to an August 2018 report on trade from the U.S. Census Bureau, both countries oversaw an estimated $428 billion in trade with each other this year. Both countries still welcome international students into their countries according to the Institute of International Education’s 2017 Open Doors Report, 350,755 Chinese students studied abroad in the United States during the 2016-2017 academic year, and the United States sent 11,688 to China. Both countries are still maintaining dialogue, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s recent announcement of a meeting with President Xi Jinping at the upcoming G20 summit. This is far from the ideological standoff that existed during the Cold War.

Although the U.S. has adopted a more confrontational stance towards China, we have yet to reach Cold War levels of confrontation. The Cold War saw the world at the brink, where the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation was real and the world was split in half, all in the name of ideological supremacy. The current tensions between the U.S. and China hardly resemble anything like thatera. In contrast, the U.S. and China are economically interdependent powers who maintain high levels of cooperation.

Cloudy with a chance of cold war?

By Jesse Adler

The two superpowers have already entered the period of what future historians may call the Sino-American Cold War. In most ways, this cold war will not resemble the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Economically and politically, China’s ability to influence other countries does not match the capabilities of the Soviet Union during the 20th century. Nor does China appear willing to engage in military conflict, at least in the short term.

That said, China has already revealed its capacity to challenge the United States, perhaps with the intention of driving the Western superpower out of its position as the foremost Asia-Pacific hegemon. Through its state-run media, China has showcased its soft power to compete with U.S. influence. China has also been pitching its state capitalist model as superior to Western equivalents. Should China maintain social stability and economic growth over the next few decades, the United States may feel its liberal democratic system threatened.

The United States has become increasingly critical of China’s foreign and domestic policies. In a recent speech at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s newfound determination to challenge China’s actions where it sees fit. The speech contained attacks on a multitude of Chinese activities, including Chinese relations with the government in Taiwan, China’s counterterrorism approach in the Xinjiang province and the country’s trade policies. Pence also blasted China for pursuing a “whole-of-government approach,” that is, using coercion and utilizing all available resources from a variety of coordinated governmental agencies to advance its interests in the U.S.

Walter Russell Mead of The Wall Street Journal calls the Hudson Institute speech “the biggest shift in U.S.-China relations since Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing.” Many other analysts have echoed this sentiment. Zhang Baohui, professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said, “[The Hudson Institute speech] will look like the declaration of a new cold war, and what China may do is more important than what it will say about Pence’s speech.”

Other leading voices in the U.S. government followed up with their own sharp criticisms of China. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified on the Senate floor that China is a greater danger to U.S. national security than Russia, saying, “China in many ways represents the broadest, most complicated, most long-term counterintelligence threat we face.”Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who chairs the Congressional Executive Commission on China, unveiled a bill that would introduce sanctions on  the country for alleged human rights violations.

Furthermore, many Democrats in Washington have embraced the current administration’s tough rhetoric on China. It is a rare and unlikely feat for bipartisan support to coalesce around an issue in the era of Trump. That the administration’s position on China has garnered such wide support across the political spectrum implies that this current approach may be longer-term than Chinese leaders would like to admit.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will not risk appearing weak, especially against the United States. To do so would unsettle the Chinese public, who, in a 2015 survey conducted by Kai Quek and Alastair Johnston of the University of Hong Kong and Harvard University respectively, expressed the desire that China should not back down from a hypothetical military standoff with the United States if tensions were to escalate. If Chinese leadership were to back down from America’s saber-rattling rhetoric, they may feel that they have lost face. The perception of weakness is not acceptable to this ascendant superpower that relies heavily on nationalistic messaging. Therefore, should the antagonistic signaling from the American side continue, China can be expected to retaliate. A cold war seems to be in the forecast for these two superpowers.

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Vice President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. where he delivered an accusational speech directed towards China.
Photo credits: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press