One prominent camp of experts and former dignitaries is arguing that a new Cold War with China would be a mistake of historic proportions, to be avoided at all costs. Others are offering advice for how to prevail: enlist India as an ally, say, or perhaps befriend Russia. While China’s foreign minister is warning that the United States is pushing “to the brink of a new Cold War,” a former Trump official has already announced “the start of a new Cold War.”
It may be tempting to reach for the Cold War playbook. Two superpowers now stand off in geopolitical, military and ideological competition. They compete for allies and influence across multiple regions. Both wish to avoid the profound destructiveness of hot war, but neither is willing to acquiesce in the other’s preferences. Competition stretches across multiple domains, simultaneously and indefinitely. This all sounds familiar.
But looking backward to the Cold War obscures more than it illuminates about U.S.-China competition today. The Soviet Union and the West formed coherent blocs — in Europe, for instance, NATO stood on one side and the Warsaw Pact on the other. Nonaligned countries in key strategic regions were relatively few and far between. The name of the game was to contain the other’s expansion while finding new allies where one could. Contested spaces saw proxy wars and battles for alignment, and little economic activity took place between blocs.
Virtually none of these characteristics are present in today’s world. China lacks anything representing an Eastern Bloc, and the United States’ network of alliances is military but not economic; indeed, one of America’s top trade partners is its greatest geopolitical rival. U.S. allies aren’t ready to sign up for an all-out confrontation with Beijing, and nearly everyone wants some mixture of security and economic benefits from both the United States and China.
Rather than a replay of the Cold War, a new kind of competition is emerging — one that eludes neat concepts such as containment and engagement that defined America’s previous approach to great-power politics.
As a result, cookie-cutter Cold War policies — such as a counter-China military alliance, a geographic containment strategy or all-out economic warfare — are as ill-suited as they are unlikely to succeed. Nor is the answer to fan fears of a looming Cold War and urge Washington to ease up on competition with China. Beijing’s ambitions are increasingly global and at odds with the United States, and Washington needs an approach that factors in this new reality.
That means preparing for a more differentiated competition with Beijing, one in which rivalry plays out issue by issue and countries balance an array of relationships with both capitals. Out with unified blocs, uncoupled economies and Fulda Gap-like standoffs; in with multiple strategies aimed at decreasing interdependence and competing effectively where necessary, and conserving energy and resources where not.
Frustrating even America’s best grand strategists, the right approach for the United States will vary. Some issues will be containment-like: trying to stymie the export of China’s high-tech authoritarianism, for instance. Some will be more defensive, primarily aiming to prevent China’s dominance, as in the South China Sea.
Others will require focusing on U.S. power at home separate and apart from China, such as boosting domestic innovation. In areas such as climate change and non-proliferation, cooperation with China may be possible and even necessary. In other arenas, Washington will simply have to take a deep breath and acknowledge where greater Chinese influence actually doesn’t matter all that much to the United States.
All the while, the competition for friends will rarely be one of strict strategic alignment, but rather an effort to build coalitions of the willing on different issues, such as responding to China’s unfair trade practices, supporting Taiwan or dealing with repression in Xinjiang.
This is where the China debate should now focus: not on top-down questions of how to wage or avoid a Cold War, but rather a bottom-up effort to renew American competitiveness, with more serious debates about specific issues and less nostalgia or neuralgia over past rivalries.
In December 1989, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Malta to declare the Cold War over. It still is. A new and different era of competition between the United States and China is dawning. Washington needs to update its mind-set as well.