U.S.-China Relations Today: A Return To The Cold War?

A Comparative Analysis between Current US-China Relations and US-Soviet Competition during the Cold War

“It is in the spirit, the spirit of ’76, that I ask you to rise and join me in a toast to Chairman Mao, to Premier Zhou, to the people of our two countries, and to the hope of our children that peace and harmony can be the legacy of our generation to theirs.” – President Richard Nixon, Feb 25, 1972

Written by Jenn Hu, from Stanford University

Abstract

With US-China tensions increasing dramatically in past years, many have speculated a new Cold War is emerging between the two countries, with headlines reading, “US & China relations: Cold War II”, increasing in prevalence. Political leaders on both sides of the Pacific have been eager to project the past onto the present, repeating calls for containment and an increased defense spending.

This paper thus aims to address two principal questions. First, what are the key similarities and differences between Cold War and current Sino-American Relations? Second, furthering the last question: is the Cold War an analogous historical event that can help us understand and formulate policies to shape US-China relations today? In addressing these questions, this paper will analyze the militaristic, economic, and ideological fronts of both relationships to determine whether the lens of the Cold War is meaningful in viewing US-China relations today.

Ultimately, this paper recognizes the many similarities apparent between Cold War tensions and current Sino-American relations that allow analysts to easily make hasty comparisons between the past and the present. There are, however, many fundamental differences that make these comparisons inappropriate at best, or even dangerous. Nonetheless, this paper concludes that there is value in seeking to gain a greater understanding of the core of great power rivalries through the lens of the Cold War; we should learn from the mistakes of the Cold War, rather than seek to emulate it, when formulating policy that will shape the Sino-American relationship of tomorrow.

I. Introduction: Friends to Cut-Throat Rivals?

In the spring of 1972, Nixon gave a toast  marking what would become an unforgettable turning point in US-China relations for the remaining quarter of the 20th Century. He saluted, “to Chairman Mao, to Premier Zhou, to the people of our two countries, and to the hope of our children that peace and harmony can be the legacy of our generation to theirs”.[1] However, the 21st century rise of China has led to an increase in tensions between the two countries,  once again illustrating the fleeting and transient nature of international relations. With the onset of a trade war, armed conflict in the South China Sea, and a burgeoning Sino-American soft power rivalry, a new era of Sino-American competition has shoved the legacy of 1972 into the shadows.

As the tensions between the two powers increase, many have speculated that a new Cold War is emerging. It is easy to assume such a comparison is an appropriate one; after all, China has replaced the U.S.S.R. as the biggest communist country in the world, following the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. The White House seems overly eager to apply the past to the present, with Washington continuously employing Cold War rhetoric when addressing the “China Question” – how to respond to China’s rise. The Trump administration has accused China of projecting its power in Asia and beyond, beckoning the United States to take action against China’s seemingly vindictive ambitions. Trump asserts, “China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific…calling for sustained US leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.”[2] This is not unlike Kennan’s call to action in 1947 in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, where he proclaimed that the increasing signs of Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe “would itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.”[3]

China, on one hand, has responded in kind, though not as blatantly, with extravagant shows of its military prowess among other assertions, while on the other hand, has denounced Washington for its “Cold War mentality”, urging the US to abandon such “outdated notions.”[4] Academic works attempting to explain the nature of US-China relations today also draw inevitable references to the Cold War, as it was the only other example of bipolar competition within recent history.[5] However, despite these constant flashbacks to the Cold War, historically-focused comparisons of Sino-American relations today to the American-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War remain uncommon.

This paper thus aims to address two principal questions. First, what are the key similarities and differences between the two relationships? Second, given those similarities and differences, is the Cold War a relevant historical event to help us accurately understand and formulate policies to shape current US-China relations? Addressing these questions is not only necessary in gaining an objective and nuanced understanding of US-China relations beyond the Cold War, it is also crucial in formulating an appropriate and cohesive foreign policy to deal with the rise of US-China hostilities today. This paper aims to analyze the military, economic, geopolitical, and ideological fronts of both rivalries, and to explore the challenges inherent in using the lens of the Cold War to view US-China relations today. However, there is value in looking towards the Cold War to gain a greater understanding of the root of superpower competition. This paper recommends that others learn from the mistakes of the Cold War, rather than to model current strategies after Cold War strategy in formulating the Sino-American policies of tomorrow.

II. Characteristics of the Cold War: A Brief Look at History

It is important to establish the characteristics defining US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Prior to 1945, the US and the Soviet Union were allies in World War II.[6] However, without a common enemy, the alliance began to break down shortly after the war ended. Tensions began to rise as the US and the Soviet Union planned for Europe’s reconstruction and rehabilitation after the devastating conflict, eventually leading to the division of Europe into two diametrically opposing blocs, which espoused mutually exclusive ideologies and rival economic and political systems.[7]

As superpower relations deteriorated further, the Cold War started to be defined as a zero-sum competition between the US and the Soviet Union, taking place within territorial, military, economic and political domains.[8] This competition manifested in many forms, including a nuclear arms race, intense competition for influence in the developing world, and the implementation of the American Containment policy, among other effects.[9]

Lastly, it is also important to highlight the paramount drivers behind this period of acute tensions between the USSR and the US: mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstanding.[10] US-Soviet cooperation originally broke down due to mutual misinterpretation of intentions by the two parties – the Soviet Union’s attempt to create for itself a buffer zone was perceived by the US as an attempt to establish hegemony in Europe, while the Marshall Plan was viewed by the USSR as a form of American imperialism.[11] This underlying distrust governed US-Soviet relations for the remaining half of the century until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

III. Economic Relations: Mutually Exclusive Blocs or Economic Interdependence?

In the late 1940s,  US-Soviet distrust emerged as a result of ideological and political concerns, with both parties suspicious of each other’s attempts to spread their political models in the European continent and abroad. However, when one refers to “China’s rise” today, more often than not, they are referring to China’s growing economic strength. This is not at all surprising. In 1980, China had 10 percent of America’s GDP as measured by purchasing power parity.[12] By 2016, China’s numbers have surpassed those of the US, standing at 115 percent of America’s GDP.[13] Today, China’s reserves are 28 times larger than America’s.[14] This rapid flight up the global economic ladder, with the accompanying relative decline of the US economy especially following 2008, or the perception as such, has fueled American fears of losing its place as the world’s most economically powerful country.[15] Given this current state of affairs, it is only natural for a large part of the US-China competition to take place in the economic domain.

The global economy also served as a major battleground for the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Following the conclusion of World War II, Europe saw the rise of two economic systems; one founded on capitalism and free markets, and the other founded on communism and central planning. The implementation of the Marshall Plan by the US and the subsequent formation of the Council for Mutual Economic Aid by the Soviet Union concretized this economic division, splitting Europe up into two mutually exclusive economic blocs.[16]

Today, the Sino-American economic relationship seems to be following a similar trajectory, marked by China’s launching of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); a project to recreate the old Silk Road which spanned across Asia and the Middle East.[17] More importantly, as part of the BRI, China’s plans to directly contribute to the infrastructural development of the countries that will span the trade route, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, by providing investment and Chinese expertise.[18] This is further heightened by China’s formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank that aims to support the building of infrastructure in Asia in 2013.[19] Should it come to fruition, the BRI and the AIIB could break the monopoly that the current US-dominated Bretton Woods system[20] has over aiding countries in their economic and infrastructural development.[21]

The US has hitherto opposed the AIIB and the BRI by dissuading its European and Asian allies from joining, perceiving it as an attempt by China to start a new economic order outside the US dominated global economic and financial system.[22] This, in turn, has only served to vindicate existing views within China about US economic containment.[23] As a result, in this self-constructed zero-sum game, the Chinese dragon believes that has no choice but to sharpen her claws while the American eagle lurks behind her, ramping up efforts to establish a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with its neighboring Asian countries.[24] These competing initiatives and responses today are similar to the game of ping pong that took place during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, with each side trying to respond to the other with increasingly intense efforts to gain economic superiority on the world stage.[25] Through this, we are beginning to see the inklings of two clear trade blocs spearheaded by the US and China respectively, not unlike the ones that arose during the Cold War.

Despite these similarities, a key difference between the economic relationships of the two rivalries lies within the extent to which the two states are economically interdependent. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its close allies had remarkably little economic intercourse with the West.[26] However, the same cannot be said for China, which is not only deeply integrated into the world economy, but also actively engages with American businesses and multinational corporations; bilateral trade between the US and China in goods and services alone amounts to close to 700 billion dollars.[27] The risk of escalating economic competition between the US and China is further diluted by the strong economic ties the two nations have both to each other, and to the rest of the world. American attempts to dissuade their European allies from joining the AIIB were mostly futile, revealing that these European countries saw no real benefit in playing to this artificially constructed zero-sum competition between China and the US.[28] Such sentiments, as a result of a high-level of interdependence, therefore greatly decrease the chances of mutually exclusive blocs forming within the economic sphere.

Owing to this high level of economic interdependence, treating trade relations as a zero-sum game can be destructive to both parties. The recent trade war between the US and China is evidence of this. This series of tit-for-tat tariffs started when the US imposed tariffs on all imports of steel and aluminum to pressure China to change its trade practices prompted Beijing to retaliate accordingly. Most recently, Washington has imposed tariffs on another $16 billion USD worth of Chinese goods, and Beijing has responded with tariffs on $16 billion USD worth of American goods.[29] President Trump’s tweet, in 140 characters, sums up the zero-sum mentality that underlies the origins of this trade war: “Our markets are surging, theirs are collapsing. We will soon be taking Billions in Tariffs & making products at home.”[30] However, reality is far from this. American tariffs are, in part, achieving their purpose by complicating China’s efforts to fix its economy[31], though they have done little to reduce America’s trade deficit.[32] Tariffs from both sides are also pressuring profits and driving production costs for American companies, inflicting the most harm onto American firms operating in China.[33] This dichotomous approach towards bilateral trade and investment has therefore so far only resulted in losers, and it seems that any victory gained would be a pyrrhic one. 

In all, it is clear that US-Soviet and US-China relations are disparate on the economic front. Despite a few similarities at first glance, it is unlikely that economic competition between the US and China will lead to two mutually exclusive economic blocs–a characteristic that defined economic relations during the Cold War. The US and China therefore cannot, and should not, treat the economic competition as a zero-sum game, as it will not only hurt US and China, but it will also hurt the world economy, as both countries are central to global trade and investment. Instead, they should work towards cooperating with each other on a more extensive and meaningful level, as it has been proven in the past that economic collaboration and compromise is possible, and can benefit both parties.

IV. Nuclear and Military Competition: A Different Game Altogether

Though economic competition and trade conflicts can be debilitative to the global economy, they are nowhere catastrophic as a nuclear war. The nuclear annihilation that arose as a result of the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union defined the Cold War.[34] This race arguably began with the dropping of the two American atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed shortly by first Soviet nuclear bomb test in 1949.[35] Though progress was made to curb the arms race to avoid mass destruction, such as the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, such progress proved to be minimal and futile.[36] These treaties bore key limitations, allowing arms buildup to continue regardless.[37]

The current nuclear arms race between US and China bears many similarities to the arms race of the Cold War, with Cary Huang, a senior editor for the South China Morning Post, explicitly stating, “The resurrection of a Cold War-style nuclear arms race is obvious”.[38] In its just released Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump Administration called for the strengthening of its nuclear deterrence to counter the “growing threat” of China.[39] Xi Jinping also recently unveiled his ambitious program to build a “world-class” military by 2050, and his calls for expanding the country’s nuclear arsenal are becoming louder.[40]

These signs of Cold War behavior do not only exist within the rhetorical space of these political leaders. In January 2018, the US Missile Defense Agency tested a Standard Missile-3 Block IIA variant interceptor.[41] Days later, China test fired a Dong Neng-3 Interceptor, announcing to the world that China’s indigenous ballistic missile capabilities are advancing at “breakneck speed”.[42]In Beijing, there remains a concern that the US is attempting to contain China with a network of ballistic missile defense systems around Asia, while the White House is preoccupied with the fear of a China eager to dilute American hegemony in the region.[43] This is reminiscent of the Cold War, where the American development of Intercontinental Continental Ballistic Missile was frantically met with the Soviet development of Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) to show military supremacy on the world stage.[44] It would thus be reasonable to make the assumption that the US and China are returning to the old ways of the Cold War that brought about widespread fear so many decades ago.

However, the similarities end at the microscopic level. The place that the arms race takes in the broader Sino-American relationship is different in nature as compared to that of the US and the Soviet Union. China’s biggest strength is not its nuclear arsenal, but its sheer economic weight—a fact of which Beijing is very well aware. China’s attitude towards the use of military force, according to Dr. Henry Kissinger, is founded on the philosophy that underpins the board game, Go: warfare is almost always the option of last resort.[45] According to another expert, Dr. David Lai, such a frame of thought differs fundamentally from the Western philosophical paradigm of warfare. He notes, “In Western tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battlefields; and the way to fight is force on force.”[46] On the other hand, Sun Tzu, the Chinese grand master of military strategy, emphasizes strategy, and focuses on diplomacy to force an enemy into submission.

This divergence in attitudes is evident today, as the US accounts for 35% of global military expenditures, more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined.[47] On the other hand, though China has been increasing its military budget, it primarily uses its economic power to tip the balance in its favor in areas where military force would traditionally feature prominently. China’s changing strategy in relation to the Taiwan Question illustrates this clearly. Learning from the lessons of the three Taiwan Straits Crises of 1955, 1958, and 1995-1996, China has moved away from military strategies, instead using economic incentives to strong-arm countries into abandoning diplomatic ties with Taiwan. El Salvador most recently broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in August 2018, the third country to do so in 2018 alone, signing a document establishing relations with China, agreeing to abide by the one-China principle with “no pre-conditions.”[48] Unsurprisingly, in explaining the reason behind this decision, the El Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez did not fail to mention China’s economic strength, stating that El Salvador would see “great benefits” and “extraordinary opportunities” in the new relationship with Beijing, as “China is the second-biggest economy in the world with permanent growth and its achievements in different fields position it among the most successful countries.”[49]

Current Sino-American relations are  game of Go, not a game of chess. As such, one would expect a hot war to be the more unlikely outcome of the intensifying rivalry, given that China sees the use of military force as an option of last resort. However, this might not be the case. The difference in expectations and attitudes might instead give rise to misunderstandings that can have catastrophic consequences. Consider this: The US continues to heighten its military presence in Asia. This, to the US, might be seen as the most natural and obvious means to balance China’s growing dominance in the region and abroad. What the US takes to be a natural development of its role in the international community can be seen by Beijing as an attempt to encircle China. In response, China might briefly consider economic or diplomatic options. However, they would most likely respond to America’s growing military involvement with its own form of military force. As military force is seen as option of last resort to China, they might take the arms race to be a matter of life or death, as compared to the US, which might see the arms race as just another domain in the Sino-American competition. To China, the possibility of surviving a nuclear attack, and by extension, earning victory in a nuclear conflict, would look promising as compared to a return to the “Century of Humiliation” at best, and the elimination of the PRC altogether at worst. The threat of a war, conventional or otherwise, could therefore very quickly erupt into nuclear catastrophe.

This might seem to be a ludicrous scenario. However, it is not entirely far-fetched. Some Chinese military officers still quote Mao’s audacious claim that even after losing 300 million citizens in a nuclear exchange, China would still survive.[50] Hence, there are indications that MAD (mutually assured destruction) is not a given in this case, raising the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the two nations as a result of this discrepancy in expectations and underlying assumptions. Graham Allison, in his Destined for War, therefore advises US and Chinese political leaders to engage in “candid conversations”, to help leaders on both sides internalize the unnatural truth that war (conventional or otherwise) is no longer an acceptable option for nuclear powers.[51] They should also build a set of mutually shared assumptions, to ensure that both sides are on the same page, playing with the same rules, on the same game board.

Another possibility to build stronger Sino-American relations on this front is to look at another fundamental difference between the nuclear arms race of today and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the nuclear arms race dominated the spotlight on the stage that was the Soviet-American relationship; the Soviet Union was America’s largest nuclear threat, and vice versa. However, today, it is harder for one to say the same for China and the US. In the recent years, notably since 2003 when it withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the DPRK has consistently positioned itself as America’s most immediate nuclear threat. At the height of tensions between the US and the DPRK in 2017, when both parties were exchanging increasingly aggressive nuclear threats, the American Ambassador to China asserted that “North Korea is the biggest threat to humankind right now and China and the US can stop it”[52], showing that China and the US have many more opportunities to collaborate to curb the threat of other growing nuclear powers than those which meet the eye. This statement also indicates China is not consistently America’s biggest military threat, giving Washington more political leeway to collaborate with China in this domain. The rise of other nuclear powers adds complexity to the global nuclear landscape which should not be ignored. Political leaders on both sides of the pacific should not perpetuate the Sino-American nuclear arms race, falling back on the pure zero-sum bipolar competition that dominated the Cold War. They should instead hinge upon chances for cooperation to bring about a more peaceful world.

V. Ideological and Geopolitical Rivalry: Rising Nationalism and other Considerations 

It is undeniable that superpower nuclear race and economic rivalry were key aspects of the Cold War. However, to many, the Cold War remains a primarily ideological competition: a struggle between “good” and “evil”. Communism and liberal capitalism were potent ideological foes not only because they offered fundamentally opposing views about how society should be ordered, but also because both American and Soviet leaders respectively thought democracy and communism were exportable political models that could expedite development and human progress.[53]

At first glance, one might assume that the Sino-American rivalry would embody that ideological conflict, since American democracy and free markets clash with China’s designation as a communist country. However, these ideological differences do not affect that relationship in the profound it affected the US-Soviet relationship. China has embraced a market-based economy and does not seek to spread and assert the superiority of the communist system in the way that the Soviet Union did. Lee Kuan Yew aptly sums up this observation, stating, “Unlike US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the US and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market.”[54]

Nonetheless, a different kind of ideological conflict might emerge between the US and China–one driven by nationalism.[55] In the last decade, Chinese leaders have come to rely much more heavily on nationalism to maintain public support for the regime, seeing that communist ideology has decreased in relevance after China opened itself to the global economy.[56] Not only has nationalism become a stronger force in China in recent years, its content has also changed in important ways; China has since positioned itself as a victim of aggression by the world’s other powers, seeking to overturn its “Century of Humiliation” and reassert its historically dominant position in Asia.[57] American nationalism is also at an all-time high, with the election of Donald Trump and the popularity of his campaign slogan, “America First”, as a manifestation of America’s growing insecurities about its relative decline in domestic and international realms.[58]

As a result of this phenomenon, China is increasingly eager to gain geopolitical influence and soft power, while the US has become increasingly adamant in maintaining its hegemonic position. This fundamental clash of interests has primarily manifested itself in developing sub-regions such as Latin America and the African continent. Over the past 15 years, China has become the most significant new economic actor in these sub-regions, with China most recently pledging $60 billion USD of financing aid to African countries, with “no political conditions attached.”[59] However, critics remain skeptical, seeing China’s increasing economic involvement with these countries as a means of promoting the Chinese experience in governance and development abroad. These attempts to export the “China model”, which has also been termed “authoritarian capitalism”, have been perceived by Washington to be part of an effort by China to threaten the influence of American “liberal-democracy” in these developing areas, “challenging and supplanting US hegemony”.[60]

Thus, at first glance, this conflict and competition between political models would seem similar to that of the Cold War; where both the US and the Soviet Union competed for ideological and political influence in the Third World. However, such a comparison is complicated by two key factors. Firstly, the level of involvement that both countries have in these regions is not as overtly intense as that of the US and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR did not only finance political parties and militias that were aligned to their respective ideological and political models, they also provided military aid and training for opposition groups to launch guerilla wars to supplant existing regimes.[61] However, in the present moment, the US and China are mostly involved in these countries through economic aid, and though the US has employed military force to overturn regimes in the 21st Century, this has yet to be done in direct response to China’s growing presence in these areas.

Secondly, this comparison is further complicated by the fact that though the US sees China’s growing political and ideological influence as a threat to American soft power and geopolitical influence, they nevertheless acknowledge the fact that China has yet to cross any red lines that warrant an extensive response on America’s part. America’s perspective of this has been articulated by a Brookings Institute Report that states, “For now, China’s rise has not unduly harmed core US national security interests in the Western Hemisphere, but it has challenged US influence and warrants continued attention”.[62] This is unlike the Cold War, where the US and the Soviet Union saw the spread of the other ideology as an existential security threat, and it is for this reason that the US and the USSR embroiled themselves in the Korean and Vietnam War, among other proxy wars[63].[64]

These complications render it difficult to make a compelling case that the two rivalries are comparable, despite the fact the current trajectory of US-China relations in the ideological realm seems to tend towards a Cold War-like competition in the developing world. However, this discrepancy is more to do with the fact that this aspect of competition is still in its premature stages than with fundamental differences between the US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War and the US-China rivalry of today. Though there are indications that an increasingly conspicuous Chinese presence is bringing social disruptions that will inevitably spill over into the political realm, the overall political effect of China’s heavy investment in Latin America and Africa remains to be seen, as compared to the significant political upheavals that took place during the Cold War as a result of the superpower rivalry. Discussions must also take place to decide when and if an intensified American presence would be an appropriate response to Chinese involvement in African and Latin American contexts. Nonetheless, with the passing of time and the discovery of further evidence–especially regarding the impact of China’s actions in the developing world–a more thorough examination of the case can be made in the future. As such, this paper recommends academia and media to refrain from comparing the Cold War and US-China competition on this front for the time being, encouraging politicians to acknowledge the current trajectory of the US-China rivalry in order to prevent conflict and unnecessary entanglement in the developing world as a result of this emerging ideological competition.

VI. Broader Insights and Recommendations

Overall, in analyzing US-China relations today, it is evident that there are interesting similarities between the US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War and the US-China rivalry of today in militaristic, economic, and ideological domains. Nevertheless, these similarities exist mostly on the surface. Graham Allison summarized this aptly,

“The temptation to find a fascinating precedent, conclude that the rise of China is “just like that,” and move directly to apply a prescription is itself a trap. As my late colleague Ernest May never tires of saying, the differences matter at least as much as the similarities.”[65]

In this case, the fundamental differences between the two rivalries render any sort of superficial comparison unproductive, or even dangerous. It is unwise to examine the US-China relationship in silo; one must also take the broader nature of geopolitics today into account. In the 21st Century, geopolitical power is no longer concentrated in the hands of two great powers as it was during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were the dominating powers of the world. Today, strong regional powers, such as, Japan, India, or states in the European Union, when united together, have the geopolitical clout and potential to shift the balance of power against either of the two powers.[66] The state of the world today is thus not solely dependent on the US or China; other state actors have to be taken into account as well. In such a multipolar world, it is therefore near impossible for America or China to sufficiently combine allies and neighbors against each other, limiting the possibilities for containment and a purely Cold War style bipolar competition between the two countries.       

Despite these various differences, there is an important similarity to glean from the two rivalries. Looking back on the analysis of the three domains, it becomes clear there are common factors fueling friction and hostilities on all fronts of the US-China rivalry: mutual suspicion, distrust, and misunderstanding. On the military front, “almost anything China does to improve its military capabilities will be seen in Beijing as defensive in nature, but in Tokyo, Hanoi and Washington, it will appear offensive in nature,”[67] while American efforts to increase its military presence in Asia will be seen in Beijing as an effort to encircle and contain China. On the economic front, similar insecurities and suspicions towards China’s increasing economic influence has prompted the United States to declare a trade war on China in early 2018, which has only served to fuel further antagonism between the two countries. The same can be said with regards to China’s efforts to expand its influence in the developing world and America’s efforts to maintain a dominant position in the global sphere. 

This is not unlike the US-Soviet relationship, where American perceptions of Soviet aggression, and Soviet fears of American encirclement led to a series of strategic miscalculations that served only to perpetuate distrust and non-cooperation between the two superpowers.[68] A lack of mutual understanding therefore seems to be the underlying and fundamental driver of hostilities in both relationships, and understanding how this fuels the US-Soviet rivalry can be the key to understanding US-China relations today beyond superficial comparisons.

As such, the policies of the Cold War should not, and must not, be seen as a model for formulating current foreign policy. Instead, politicians and policy makers must learn from the past mistakes of the Cold War, and endeavor to develop clear lines of communication, build on mutual understanding on all three fronts, and establish people-to-people exchanges. This is particularly the case given that America and China are still heavily interconnected, especially economically. Treating such a relationship as a zero-sum game has only proven to inflict harm on both countries, as  the negative impacts of the ongoing trade war have illustrated on both sides; such a mentality would only produce losers and pyrrhic victories. We should therefore work towards fostering a US-China relationship built on cooperation while this relationship still exists, rather than allowing it to follow the footsteps of the US-Soviet relationship after 1945, towards a point of no return.

VII. Conclusion

This paper concludes that it is mostly unproductive to employ the lens of the Cold War to view US-China relations in the manner that the press and politicians are doing so today. The binary mode of thought that pervaded the Cold War is strongly deterministic and oversimplifies complexity, “setting up almost a framework for promoting false choices within this narrative” (Kausikan).[69]

However, it is important to note that the Cold War is not entirely irrelevant in understanding US-China relations. Beyond surface-level comparisons, we can more easily understand and project the future of US-China relations by looking at the way mutual misunderstandings and insecurities similarly fueled hostilities between the US and the Soviet Union, learning lessons from the past to bring about a better future. Further investigations should also be carried out to articulate how specific mistakes made during the Cold War can be avoided, and how policies for cooperation during the Cold War can be implemented in a way that takes into account the differences in geopolitics today. Ultimately, this paper encourages the US and China to avoid looking to the past to borrow solutions for the present and the future, and instead, endeavor towards developing a new long-term model of great power relations that can benefit US, China, and the world.


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Endnotes

[1] President (1969-1974 : Nixon), Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon: Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President (Washington: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1971), 374.

[2] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington: President of the U.S, 2017. 46.

[3] George F. Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (1947): 566-78.

[4] “China Condemns US ‘Cold War Mentality’ on National Security.”, BBC News, December 19, 2017.

[5] For example, Jude Woodward’s The US vs. China: Asia’s New Cold War?,  The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer, and The Contest of the Century by Geoff Dyer. 

[6] John L. Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 1.

[7] Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History, 7.

[8] James R. Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO), xiii.

[9]Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, xiii.

[10] Deborah Welch Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust: U.S.-Soviet Relations during the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 4.

[11] Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust, 5.

[12] Andrea Willige, “The World’s Top Economy: The US vs China in Five Charts,” World Economic Forum, accessed September 14, 2018, http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/12/the-world-s-top-economy-the-us-vs-china-in-five-charts/.  

[13] Willege, “The World’s Top Economy”.

[14] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 7.

[15] John Woodward, The US vs. China: The New Cold War? (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 5.

[16] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, xxiv.

[17] Yu Cheng, Lilei Song, and Lihe Huang. The Belt & Road Initiative in the Global Arena: Chinese and European Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 3.

[18] Cheng, Song, and Huang, The Belt & Road Initiative in the Global Arena, 3.

[19] David Dollar. “The AIIB and the ‘One Belt, One Road’,” Brookings, September 07, 2017, http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-aiib-and-the-one-belt-one-road/.

[20] Consists of international financial and economic institutions, namely the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

[21] Dollar, “The AIIB and the ‘One Belt, One Road’.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] Fu Ying, “How Chinese and Americans Are Misreading Each Other — And Why It Matters,” The Huffington Post, September 09, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fu-ying/chinese-americans-misread_b_8105040.html.

[24] Alexander Denmark, “A New Era of Intensified U.S.-China Competition,” Wilson Center, January 16, 2018, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/new-era-intensified-us-china-competition.

[25] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, 135.

[26] John J. Mearsheimer,  “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 3, no. 4 (2010): 393.

[27] Allison,  Destined for War, 7.

[28] Andrew Higgins and David E. Sanger. “3 European Powers Say They Will Join China-Led Bank,” The New York Times, March 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/18/business/france-germany-and-italy-join-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank.html.

[29] Business Insider, “Trump Reportedly Wants to Push Forward with Tariffs on $200 Billion Worth of Chinese Goods despite New Trade Talks,” Business Insider Singapore, September 14, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.sg/trump-china-trade-war-tariffs-goods-200-billion-talks-2018-9/.

[30] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “The Wall Street Journal has it wrong, we are under no pressure to make a deal with China, they are under pressure to make a deal with us. Our markets are surging, theirs are collapsing. We will soon be taking in Billions in Tariffs & making products at home. If we meet, we meet?,” Twitter, September 13, 2018, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1040242677877551104.

[31] Weizhen Tan, “US-China Trade War’s Impact on China’s Economy,” July 18, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/18/us-china-trade-wars-impact-on-chinas-economy.html.

[32]David Dollar, “As the Trade War Worsens, the Trade Deficit Increases,” Brookings Institute, August 16, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/as-the-trade-war-worsens-the-trade-deficit-increases/.

[33]“U.S. Firms in China Feeling ‘clear and Far Reaching’ Trade War…,” Reuters, September 13, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-survey/u-s-firms-in-china-feeling-clear-and-far-reaching-trade-war-pinch-survey-idUSKCN1LT049.

[34] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, xiv.

[35] Ibid.

[36]Michael Krepon, “Has Arms Control Worked?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 6, no. 4 (1 May 1989): 27–28 .

[37] Krepon, “Has Arms Control Worked?”, 27-28.

[38] Cary Huang, “Why China Will Go Full Steam Ahead in Nuclear Arms Race,” South China Morning Post. February 13, 2018, http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2133033/why-china-will-go-full-steam-ahead-nuclear-arms-race.

[39] Nuclear Posture Review Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Defense, 2010.

[40] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” Speech, Beijing, October 18, 2017, Xinhua, www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.html.

[41]Ankit Panda, “China and the United States Worry About Each Other Missile Defense Intentions. So Why Not Talk?” The Diplomat, March 4, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/china-and-the-united-states-worry-about-each-other-missile-defense-intentions-so-why-not-talk/.

[42] Panda, “China and the United States Worry About Each Other Missile Defense Intentions.”

[43] Ibid.

[44] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, 142.

[45] Henry Kissinger and Penguin, On China (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 20.

[46] David Lai, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi:” (Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Technical Information Center, May 1, 2004), https://doi.org/10.21236/ADA423419, 5.

[47] STOCKHOLM INTERNATIONAL PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE., SIPRI YEARBOOK 2018 : Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. ([S.l.]: OXFORD UNIV PRESS, 2018).

[48] Goh Sui Noi, “Taiwan Loses Third Diplomatic Ally This Year after El Salvador Breaks Ties,”, News, The Straits Times, August 21, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/taiwan-set-to-lose-its-third-diplomatic-ally-this-year-source.

[49] Goh, “Taiwan Loses Third Diplomatic Ally This Year”.

[50]Philip Taubman and Special To the New York Times, “Gromyko Says Mao Wanted Soviet A-Bomb Used on G.I.’s,” The New York Times, February 22, 1988, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/22/world/gromyko-says-mao-wanted-soviet-a-bomb-used-on-gi-s.html.

[51] Allison,  Destined for War, 209.

[52]Holly Ellyatt Cutmore Eunice Yoon, Geoff, “North Korea the ‘biggest Threat to Humankind’ Right Now, Top US Diplomat Says,” December 6, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/06/north-korea-the-biggest-threat-to-the-humankind-right-now-top-us-diplomat-says.html.

[53] Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm,” 393.

[54] Lee Kuan Yew, “Speech by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at the US-ASEAN Business Council’s 25th Anniversary Gala Dinner in Washington DC, 27 October 2009,” Government Website, Embassy of the Republic of Singapore, accessed September 18, 2018, https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/washington/newsroom/press_statements/2009/200910/press_200910.html.

[55] John J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 516.

[56] Mark Beeson, “Can the US and China Coexist in Asia?” Current History, (September 2016): 203.

[57] Beeson, “Can the US and China Coexist in Asia?”, 203.

[58] Gerald F. Seib, “Trump Plunges Ahead With America-First, Nationalist Approach,” The Wall Street Journal, April 03, 2018, http://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-plunges-ahead-with-america-first-nationalist-approach-1522793064.

[59] Anna Fifield, “China Pledges $60 Billion in Aid and Loans to Africa, No ‘Political Conditions Attached’ – The Washington Post,” Washington Post, September 3, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/china-pledges-60-billion-in-aid-and-loans-to-africa-no-strings-attached/2018/09/03/a446af2a-af88-11e8-a810-4d6b627c3d5d_story.html?utm_term=.a04c4afa9842.

[60] Ted Piccone, “The Geopolitics of China’s Rise in Latin America,” Brookings. February 22, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-geopolitics-of-chinas-rise-in-latin-america/

[61] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, 424.

[62] Piccone, “The Geopolitics of China’s Rise in Latin America.”

[63] Truman famously remarked, “Korea is a small country, thousands of miles away, but what is happening there is important to every American.. An act of aggression such as this creates a very real danger to the security of all free nations.”

[64] Arnold, Cold War: the Essential Reference Guide, xxvi.

[65] Graham Allison, Destined for War, pg. 218.

[66] Bilahari Kausikan, “How Not to Think about Geopolitics in East Asia,” The Straits Times, June 01, 2018, http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/how-not-to-think-about-geopolitics-in-east-asia.

[67] John J. Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?” The National Interest, June 05, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/commentary/can-china-rise-peacefully-10204?page=8.

[68] Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust, 4.

[69] Kausikan, “How Not to Think about Geopolitics in East Asia.”

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