Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

No, We’re Not Nearing a Cold War with China

Comparing the Sino-American relationship to the U.S.-Soviet relationship is lazy, mistaken—and dangerous.
May 10, 2021
No, We’re Not Nearing a Cold War with China
A police officer stands guard as a pedestrian walks past at the entrance to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province, on July 24, 2020. - China on July 24 ordered the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu to close in retaliation for one of its missions in the United States being shuttered, capping a furious week of what some described as Cold War-style diplomacy. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP / Getty)

As the relationship between the United States and China is turning more adversarial, invocations of the Cold War are becoming more common in descriptions of the conflict. This is a dangerous mistake.

Of course, all historical analogies are necessarily limited, and historical comparisons, when used judiciously and understood charitably, don’t mean that all of the circumstances present in one situation also obtain in the other. But comparing the U.S.-China relationship to the U.S.-Soviet relationship elides more than it illuminates and is a sign more often of lazy thinking than erudition.

U.S.-Soviet competition kicked off soon after the war in Europe ended, if not before. Within a year of V-E Day, the percipient George F. Kennan was sketching out the implacability of the Soviet menace and Winston Churchill was speaking publicly (as he already had in private) of the “Iron Curtain.” Harry Truman spelled out what would become known as the “Truman Doctrine” in a March 1947 address before Congress, and later that year Walter Lippmann’s book about the two superpowers’ relationship, The Cold War, popularized that term.

Today, the new Cold War talk is naturally accompanied by a set of Cold War policies and strategies. Leaning into the historical mold, no shortage of observers of international relations have tried to play the part of Kennan by advocating some form of “containment” against China. Some have even called for an “Asian NATO.” Taiwan, they suggest, is the new Berlin.

None of these analogies is particularly useful. Containing China neither is, nor should be, U.S. policy. When the Cold War began, economic ties—or really much of any ties beyond the limited military and diplomatic ones established for the purpose of winning the war—between the United States and the Soviet Union were virtually nonexistent. U.S. exports to and imports from the Soviet Union in 1937, before the war began to transform their economic relationship, accounted for just 1 percent of total U.S. exports and imports. Even as late as 1984, just before the warming of relations under Mikhail Gorbachev, exports to the Soviet Union accounted for just 1.5 percent of the U.S. total, and imports were under 0.2 percent. By contrast, China and the United States are each other’s largest trading partners today: 6 percent of all U.S. exports in 2019 were to China, and 18 percent of all U.S. imports were from China. Likewise, during the Cold War the size of trade between the Soviet Union and U.S. allies and partners was much smaller than the size of trade between them and China today. This means that, while American corporations took pride in being anti-Communist during the Cold War, today, they are lobbyists for China’s interests free of charge.

Even though China’s economy is not producing miraculous growth numbers like it used to, it is still doing well enough that even talking about economic decoupling can be politically tricky. It may be popular, as Donald Trump understood, to bash China, but if turbulence in the U.S.-China trade relationship were to result in significantly higher prices for consumer goods, American consumers might balk. (The Chinese people would also likely be dissatisfied by being cut off from their largest export market, but, in an autocratic system like China’s, their opinions have rather less direct results on policy.)

Not only does America’s economic relationship with China differ markedly from that with the Soviet Union, but the military situation is also completely different. One reason the United States needed to contain the Soviet Union was that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union refused to leave Eastern Europe and Iran. Fear of military invasion of Europe by the Soviets persisted from V-E Day until the conclusion of the Cold War, which is why the Soviets needed to be contained. Containment of China, on the other hand, is neither as necessary nor as practicable. Militarily, China’s main goal is to annex Taiwan, and the United States should prevent this. But China is growing its influence through investments in the developing world rather than military invasions and occupations as the Soviets did. Apart from Taiwan, China’s neighbors don’t fear imminent invasion.

Which brings us to the problem of the “Asian NATO” idea. Ellen Bork has explained in great detail the difficulties with establishing such an organization. Most of the recent interest in a democracy-based security bloc in the Indo-Pacific has focused on the so-called Quad countries—the United States, India, Australia, and Japan—which regularly hold summits for heads of government and foreign ministers and conduct joint military exercises. The absences from the Quad are revealing: South Korea, a key American security partner, is consistently relegated to the kid’s table. Last year, it was invited to participate in the “Quad Plus” summit, along with Vietnam and New Zealand, indicating (as if more evidence were necessary) that the threat from China hasn’t forced Japan and South Korea together as the Soviet threat did France, the U.K., and Germany.

And Taiwan isn’t Berlin. China’s lust for Taiwan is freighted with symbolism and history, while the Soviets’ desire to annex West Berlin had to do with concerns for migration and the presence of the U.S. military inside the Soviet sphere. More to the point, Taiwan is an autonomous state—all but formally independent—and a set of islands, not a city surrounded by tanks. The only thing the two have in common is a military threat from an adversary of the United States.

Yes, the People’s Republic of China is a Communist state, as the Soviet Union was. But competition with a Communist country does not a Cold War make, and Soviet and Chinese communism are famously divergent. During the 1980s, China liberalized its economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Xi Jinping is scaling back these reforms, but, copying the techniques of Communist leaders from Ho Chi Minh to Kim Il-sung to Pol Pot, Xi is fusing nationalism to his state’s ideology. China also doesn’t support Communist rebellions around the world the way the Soviet Union did, preferring instead to purchase influence through organizations like the propagandistic Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

There are many lessons to learn from the Cold War, but those lessons should be learned while keeping in mind that the Cold War was a unique phenomenon. It was dominated, almost from the beginning, by a nuclear arms competition. The U.S.-China competition is more similar to traditional great power rivalries, in which economic factors are treated as most important, followed by conventional military force.

During the Cold War, other than nuclear nonproliferation and arms control, there was next to no cooperation between the two superpowers. Beyond the bilateral economic relationship, the United States and China still need a relationship to cooperate on climate change. Prudently conducted, climate change diplomacy can be an advantage for the free world against China. Among other areas of shared interests are combating Islamist terrorism—although China’s genocidal treatment of Uighurs is making this proposal nearly impossible—nuclear nonproliferation, and emerging pandemic-potential diseases.

Just as Pericles made the Peloponnesian War inevitable by repeatedly calling it inevitable, using the phrase “Cold War” risks unintentionally harming the already complicated U.S. relationship with China. This is not a new Cold War, and the relationship is not nearly adversarial enough to merit the label of “war” of any kind. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the relationship astutely:

Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.

Calling our relationship with China a Cold War can becloud our political and moral vision and lead to lazy policy and misguided strategy. Calling for a new NATO liberates one from thinking of developing new tools against China that would be as useful as NATO was against the Soviet Union. That is to say, calling it a new Cold War leads one to fight the Soviet Union three decades after it ceased to exist.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.