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.
In 2019, the situation between the United States and China is very different. Since the 1970s, diplomatic interactions, institutional ties and economic flows have all exploded. Although each side has criticized the other for domestic interference (such as U.S. demands for journalist access to Tibet and China’s espionage against U.S. corporations), these issues did not prevent cooperation on a host of other issues. Yes, there were tensions over the past decade, but these occurred against a generally cooperative backdrop.
2. Geography and powers’ nuclear postures suggest East Asia is more stable than Cold War-era Europe
The Cold War was shaped by an intense arms race, nuclear posturing and crises, especially in continental Europe. Given Europe’s political geography, the United States feared a “bolt from the blue” attack would allow the Soviet Union to conquer the continent. Accordingly, the United States prepared to defend Europe with conventional forces, and to deter Soviet aggrandizement using nuclear weapons.
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.
Today, the United States and China spend proportionally far less on their militaries than the United States and the Soviet Union did. Though an arms race may be emerging, U.S. and Chinese nuclear postures are not nearly as large or threatening: Arsenals remain far below the size and scope witnessed in the Cold War, and are kept at a lower state of alert.
As for geography, East Asia is not primed for tensions akin to those in Cold War Europe. China can threaten to coerce its neighbors, but the water barriers separating China from most of Asia’s strategically important states make outright conquest significantly harder. Of course, as scholars such as Caitlin Talmadge and Avery Goldstein note, crises may still erupt, and each side may face pressures to escalate. Unlike the Cold War, however, U.S.-Chinese confrontations occur at sea with relatively limited forces and without clear territorial boundaries. This suggests there are countervailing factors that may give the two sides room to negotiate — and limit the speed with which a crisis unfolds.
3. The Cold War had just two major powers
The Cold War took place in a bipolar system, with the United States and Soviet Union uniquely powerful, compared with other nations. This dynamic often pushed the United States and the U.S.S.R. toward confrontation and contributed to more or less fixed alliances; moreover, it encouraged efforts to suppress prospective great powers, such as Germany.
In 2019, it’s not at all clear we are back to bipolarity. Analysts remain divided over whether the U.S. unipolar era is waning (or is already over) — and, if so, whether we are heading for a new period of bipolarity, modern-day multipolarity or something else. Regardless, most analysts accept that other countries will play a central role in East Asian security affairs.
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
The early 20th century saw liberalism, communism and fascism vie for ideological preeminence. With fascism defeated alongside Nazi Germany, the postwar stage was set for a struggle between communism and liberalism to reinforce the U.S.-Soviet contest. That each ideology claimed universal scope ensured that the ideologies served as rallying cries for Third World conflicts, which were subsequently associated with the U.S.-Soviet struggle.
The respective “ideologies” of the United States and China do not favor this type of contest today. Indeed, analysts calling for a hard-line stance against China have faced difficulties even identifying a coherent Chinese ideological alternative. And while some researchers claim that a nascent ideological contest pitting an “autocratic” China against the “liberal” United States is emerging, this narrative ignores the political contests that shape Chinese politics (and have parallels in U.S. politics). Autocracies and democracies often cooperate. And on one important ideological issue — how they organize their economic lives — China and the United States have both embraced economic growth via trade, the private sector and semi-free markets.
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.
Joshua Shifrinson (@shifrinson) is an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of “Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts” (Cornell University Press, 2018).