All this has many observers — even in the White House — speaking of a new “Cold War” between the United States and China. Some even argue that this is desirable, presumably with the belief that our side will naturally emerge victorious.
Yet the phrase is a misleading one. It assumes that the terms of the old Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which we fought and won, are relevant, and that the tools used successfully then could be used again now.
This conceptual error ignores the many differences between then and now. It is worth recalling that the Soviet Union was not our major trading partner, was not a major holder of our debt and was not tightly interconnected in the supply chains critical to our (and the world’s) economy.
The Cold War was fought and won pretty much exclusively on military and cultural terms. The economic side was relevant only because the Soviets' doomed model inhibited any real competition. We were neither competitors nor partners in the economic space. A new Cold War between the United States and China would be something else entirely. It is difficult to see how it could be fought effectively, not to mention successfully.
This is by no means to question the need to respond to increasingly aggressive behavior by China. But the U.S. response must be coherent, disciplined and sophisticated. It must balance capabilities and objectives. Reverting to a Cold War mentality will drive us toward belligerent posturing that has little or no chance of changing Chinese behavior and could, on the contrary, provoke overreactions and dangerous miscalculations on both sides.
Above all, we must create a deliberate strategy that is aimed at managing this great-power conflict rather than vanquishing a foe. This is very hard work, requiring patience, conviction and broad political support. It also requires the full participation of our allies, both in the region and elsewhere. We must undertake these efforts with the imperative of preventing a downward spiral toward armed conflict.
Too often, U.S. policy toward China seems to be motivated by the urge to score points for short-term political benefit. Yet the Chinese are clearly pursuing their foreign policy goals according to a carefully calculated long-term strategy.
That Chinese long game was defined first by Xi Jinping’s successful internal campaign to secure the regime’s survival, which has now positioned him at the head of an explicitly totalitarian state. Beijing’s long-term strategy also includes an extremely ambitious foreign policy agenda, aimed first at shifting the center of the world economy to Eurasia through the Belt and Road Initiative.
At the same time, China is pursuing increasingly aggressive territorial ambitions, including the clear intention to absorb Taiwan into the People’s Republic. Our decades-long coherent management of this issue is increasingly challenged.
China’s strategy also aims to encircle the West technologically, dominating all the advanced systems of data collection and manipulation, including artificial intelligence, robotics, aerospace and quantum computing, always taking into account potential military applications. China has recognized, far earlier and far more clearly than any of the rest of us, that technology is the determining factor in the decisive battle of this moment in history. Beijing is working hard to create an overwhelming Chinese advantage in this battle. We must win this conflict with coherent strategies and, crucially, by cultivating the support of allies.
In response to these and other challenges, the rest of the world, hopefully led once again by the United States, must respond with unity and long-range vision. Nearly spontaneous and seemingly unconnected irritations such as closing a consulate, imposing sanctions on a few officials, tweaking tariffs or sanctioning individual companies merely provoke countermeasures that will inhibit real management of this immense and complicated problem.
Most importantly, policies by the United States and our allies must be aimed at expanding the diplomatic and political space to work these issues creatively and productively. This will take time. And it will also require the rebuilding of alliance cohesion and multilateral institutions capable of responding to China’s long-term strategic vision with policies of comparable coherence and strength. As we know from the past, only the United States can forge those tools. Our allies and other like-minded nations are beginning to recognize the threats China poses to our common future. They will become increasingly receptive to enlightened leadership from the United States.