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Opinion Biden just won a significant diplomatic victory with China

President Biden holds a news conference after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

“I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War,” President Biden said last week after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. I’m afraid it’s too late: For all intents and purposes, the Cold War is already here.

Both the United States and China — the top two military and economic powers in the world — already view each other as the main threat to their own security. Tensions are rising over flash points such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Disputes over China’s unfair trade practices, human rights abuses and pandemic response have exacerbated animosities.

Just a decade ago, slightly more Americans had a favorable rather than a unfavorable view of China. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent have an unfavorable view while only 16 percent have a favorable view. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of Chinese respondents expressed a negative view of the United States in a poll by the Central European Institute of Asia Studies.

Long gone are the hopes that attended China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 — an event that President Bill Clinton hailed as “the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s.” Today, with Xi having consolidated more power than any Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong, such talk seems hopelessly naive. Biden now speaks of “extreme competition” with China, and fears are rising of a U.S.-China war.

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But while the Cold War might be here, it need not lead to a hot war. We are not doomed to a “Thucydides trap,” a term popularized by Harvard University’s Graham Allison after the famous observation by the ancient Greek writer that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison found that in the past 500 years there were “sixteen cases in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state,” and that “twelve of these rivalries ended in war.”

But it is significant that four of them did not lead to war, including the only one to occur in the nuclear age: the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Our goal today should be to manage the new Cold War as we managed the old Cold War by striving for detente and seeking to avoid high-risk confrontations such as the Cuban missile crisis. Biden’s own national security strategy is clear-eyed about the imperative to both compete with China and cooperate on areas of shared concern, such as global warming and covid-19.

But that’s easier said than done when anti-China passions are surging in the United States and the two parties are competing on who can be tougher on China. Among MAGA Republicans, China-bashing often turns racist. Last week, for example, Daniel McCarthy, a former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, pointed to the fact that Treasurer Kimberly Yee, a Chinese American, was the only winning GOP candidate for statewide office as evidence that “China controls our elections.” It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Yee is not an election denier, could it?

Unfortunately, former president Donald Trump — who called covid-19 “kung flu” and mocked his own transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, in racist terms — mainstreams these vile prejudices. The pending House Republican investigation of Hunter Biden will cater to such sentiments by trying to portray the Bidens as dupes of Beijing, just as in the 1940s and 1950s many Republicans tried to portray Democratic officeholders as dupes of the Kremlin. (Richard M. Nixon called Secretary of State Dean Acheson the “Red Dean of the College of Cowardly Containment.”)

Fear of being attacked for “losing” South Vietnam, as President Harry S. Truman supposedly “lost” China, led John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to ramp up the United States’ ill-fated intervention in Vietnam. That should serve as a warning about the dangers of anti-Communist paranoia run amok.

We have legitimate reasons to abhor China’s regime and to fear its ambitions to dominate East Asia, but we can also work with it. It was significant, for example, that, during their meeting in Bali, Biden and Xi “underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” China also joined in the G-20 summit statement that noted “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.” Those are major diplomatic victories that further isolate Russia. Of course, on most other issues, Biden and Xi did not see eye to eye — but that’s an argument for more diplomacy, not less.

“It is as myopic today to assume that a more hawkish approach to China will cause China to accommodate to our preferences as it was in the past to assume that deeper trade would hasten China’s democratic transformation,” Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, told me. “If the United States cannot bend Cuba to its will, it shouldn’t expect to be able to impose its will on China. There is no substitute for hard-nosed, clear-eyed diplomacy to manage the relationship.”

That’s what Biden was doing in Bali. He deserves praise for seeking to limit the danger from the growing U.S.-China confrontation rather than being criticized, in the words of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for a “policy of appeasement.”