But such concerns are overblown. Here are four big reasons why.
1. The historical backdrops of the two relationships are very different
When the Cold War began, the U.S.-Soviet relationship was fragile and tenuous. Bilateral diplomatic relations were barely a decade old, U.S. intervention in the Russian Revolution was a recent memory, and the Soviet Union had called for the overthrow of capitalist governments into the 1940s. Despite their Grand Alliance against Nazi Germany, the two countries shared few meaningful diplomatic, economic or institutional links.
2. Geography and powers’ nuclear postures suggest East Asia is more stable than Cold War-era Europe
Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union also feared that the United States might attack and wanted to deter U.S. adventurism. Concerns that the other superpower might use force and that crises could quickly escalate colored Cold War politics.
3. The Cold War had just two major powers
Russia, for example, still benefits from legacy military investments, India is developing economically and militarily, and Japan is beginning to build highly capable military forces to complement its still-significant economic might. Even if these nations aren’t as powerful as the United States or China, their presence makes for more fluid diplomatic arrangements and more diffuse security concerns than during the U.S.-Soviet competition. The resulting security dynamics are therefore likely to look very different.
4. Ideology plays less of a role in U.S.-Chinese relations
This is not to deny that there are tensions between the United States and China. What we are seeing, however, is not a new cold war but a reversion to a pre-1945 form of great power politics. What changed? Put simply, the United States no longer enjoys preeminence as the only superpower, as it did in the immediate post-Cold War era.
The ideological, historical and geopolitical differences between today and the Cold War years far outweigh the similarities. As David Edelstein notes, at times it’s hard to understand what the United States and China are competing over. If that’s true, then there’s reason to believe there are more nuanced ways of understanding the tensions — and options for managing great power politics — than a Cold War reboot.