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Will President-elect Biden wage a new Cold War with China?

The key to forging a functional international community, instead of destructive competition

U.S. flags are displayed together with Chinese flags in Beijing in 2018. (Andy Wong/AP)
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President-elect Joe Biden has said that China represents “a special challenge” and will be a significant test for his presidency. This is a far cry from just two decades ago when U.S. policymakers were optimistic that China would join with the United States, Europe and Japan to become a “responsible stakeholder” within the world community.

Instead, Beijing has grown increasingly assertive, staking expansive territorial claims throughout the South China Sea, engaging in acts of intimidation against its neighbors, terminating Hong Kong’s special status, threatening Australia over its investigation of the coronavirus pandemic, threatening Taiwan with invasion and clashing with India over territorial disputes.

China is no longer biding its time, as Deng Xiaoping once advised, it is asserting its power throughout the world. China’s rapid economic growth has emboldened Beijing to challenge American hegemony and forge a new global order based on its autocratic, mercantile system. Once coy about their ambitions, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his supporters are convinced of China’s growing power and U.S. decline and unabashedly promote the “Chinese dream” encapsulated in a 2013 speech by Xi.

In response, a bitterly divided Washington has forged a surprisingly bipartisan consensus that sees U.S. geopolitical and economic competition with China escalating into a new Cold War comparable with the U.S.-Soviet confrontation of the 1950s. Indeed, some consider China already a more dangerous challenge than the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, policymakers have turned to the Cold War for ideas on how to navigate the return to great power competition, including mounting calls for the United States to resurrect the strategy of containment to thwart China’s drive for dominance. The Cold War does offer us important lessons for today, but only if we recognize that U.S. policy was far more sophisticated than simple containment with its implied acceptance of a divided international community. Instead, U.S. policymakers believed that the divisions between the Soviet and American worlds could eventually be eliminated by a more aggressive set of policies. Similar measures today would aim not only to prevent the expansion of Chinese power, but also to undermine China’s widening sphere of influence.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had planned for a world where the great powers would work in tandem to ensure peace and stability through the United Nations and the Bretton Woods monetary system. However, in the months following the war, many in Washington and London increasingly doubted whether the Soviets would respect the many wartime agreements negotiated between the great powers. Following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, President Harry S. Truman grew increasingly alarmed that the Soviet Union was failing to meet the commitments it had agreed to during the wartime conferences, especially free elections in Eastern Europe.

By January 1946, hopes for cooperation were dashed, raising fears of a new war. George Kennan offered the most trenchant explanation to date for Soviet behavior in his legendary 1946 “Long Telegram” and 1947 Foreign Affairs article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” As director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, he devised a grand strategy focused on defeating the spread of Soviet communism in Europe and strengthening the emerging liberal order. The memory of World War II weighed on Kennan’s mind, especially the doctrine of unconditional surrender that had shaped allied objectives during the war. But Kennan embraced a far more nuanced strategy for contending with the Soviet Union, what regrettably became known as “containment” but was instead a strategy to transform Soviet behavior and end the ideological struggle that risked a new world war.

Prompted by Secretary of State George Marshall, Kennan prepared classified government studies establishing America’s comprehensive Cold War objectives. Truman approved them as U.S. policy on Nov. 24, 1948. These goals would reflect the limited purpose of the Cold War, instead of the “total victory” called for during World War II.

Kennan envisioned reducing the power and influence of the Soviet Union to the point it would no longer pose a threat to the international community and to compel the Soviets to see international cooperation as in their best interest; they would guide U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for years to come.

Under this plan, victory in the Cold War reflected the more limited goal of liberalizing Soviet policies — not necessarily inducing the overthrow of the communist regime. Through economic, diplomatic, military and political warfare techniques, the United States strove to force the Soviet Union to abandon the promotion of communist revolutions, afford the Soviet-occupied states of Eastern Europe a measure of domestic autonomy and lift the Iron Curtain dividing Europe. Kennan believed that these goals could be achieved within 15 years.

To succeed, the United States marshaled its resources to defeat Soviet efforts to expand communism around the world, rebut Soviet propaganda, use covert action and political warfare to destabilize Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and build a military capability to deter Soviet military aggression. These measures encouraged appreciable changes within the Soviet system as the Eastern European states gained greater domestic autonomy. Though it took far longer than Kennan had hoped, the West successfully outcompeted the Soviets around the world, ultimately forcing Soviet leaders to adopt reform programs they knew risked their continued rule, as Mikhail Gorbachev discovered in the 1980s.

U.S. Cold War policies have received withering criticisms since their inception. The Soviet Union’s collapse came at the deadly cost of American wars in Korea and Vietnam, hot wars and assassinations in decolonizing Africa and a spiraling arms race that many feared could lead to nuclear war. It was a geopolitical and ideological battle in which the United States frequently turned to CIA-sponsored regime-change operations and military interventions that often went awry.

Today’s conflict between the United States and China is considerably different from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Unlike the USSR, China lacks a powerful ideology to foster worldwide insurgency movements. Indeed, China’s major attraction is its economic power, including its dominant trade position with many countries and the finance it extends countries with poor credit ratings and corrupt leadership. With China’s advancements in 5G cellular technology and artificial intelligence, the real hegemonic battle will be fought in the realms of international trade, finance, development and technology.

Nevertheless, the Cold War playbook could help the United States counter China today. The United States could act to convince the world of the superiority of the West’s democratic, free-market system, expose the debt traps created by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, discredit the Chinese dream and convince the Chinese that being a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community would best enable their nation’s continued, peaceful rise as a great power.

But the Cold War playbook hinges on Biden convincing the world that America has reembraced internationalism and repairing the enormous damage to America’s global image caused by President Trump’s failure to address the coronavirus pandemic. It also requires reinvigorating alliances throughout Asia, rebuilding ties with NATO, enabling Taiwan to defend itself from a Chinese invasion and addressing the challenge of misinformation and cyber warfare.

By confronting China’s hegemonic ambitions while also reassuring Beijing that the United States considers it a global counterpart just like Japan and the European Union, Washington and Beijing could be one of the few sets of great powers in history to have peacefully resolved their competition.