In recent months, many observers have sounded the alarm that hardening U.S. policy toward China could provoke a “new cold war.” As I wrote with my colleague, Quincy Institute Deputy Director of Research and Policy Stephen Wertheim in the New York Times, hawkish members of the Trump administration are using the current pandemic as an opportunity to launch a long-desired cold war that had failed to gain traction amidst Trump’s push for a phase-one trade deal.
However, some who agree with this critique of recent U.S. policy have challenged the use of this term, rejecting the basic premise that anything like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War of the 20th century is possible between the United States and China.
This critique of the critique has merit. The economic models of both the United States and China in the contemporary era depend upon robust integration with a global trading and financial system that makes them mutually interdependent — not only bilaterally, but also as nodes in complex multilateral production networks. Such a relationship does not easily lend itself to a cold-warrish dynamic of mutual isolation and segregation.
These same broader production networks also render countries around the globe, including America’s allies, mutually interdependent with both the United States and China, and thus highly resistant to choosing sides in any sort of “Cold War 2.0.”
These basic structural and geopolitical realities are not stopping the current administration from trying to wage an anti-China cold war, however. A cold war is not necessarily a state of mutual economic isolation between countries or multi-nation blocs. It can refer more generally to “intense economic, political, military, and ideological rivalry between nations, short of military conflict.” Recent U.S. policy toward China manifests all of these dimensions of rivalry.
Precisely because of the strong structural impediments, the current administration is having to work hard to manufacture a new cold war. And in order to do so, it is attacking the sources of ballast that have long stabilized the ship of U.S.-China relations.
In numerous administrative rules, enforcement actions, and rhetorical broadsides, this administration has warned businesses, state and local governments, colleges and universities, scholars and advocates, and diaspora communities against collaborations with Chinese entities, threatening them with punishment for serving as unwitting agents of the Chinese government. This approach was epitomized in a series of speeches delivered in June and July by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The explicit goal of these speeches was to engineer a “whole-of-society response” to “the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses not only to our way of life, but to our very lives and livelihoods.”
Some of the complaints raised in these speeches were founded on kernels of truth and legitimate concerns about Chinese government repression, censorship, and intellectual property theft. However, much like Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting in the 1950s, they went far beyond raising legitimate concerns. They extrapolated from isolated anecdotes to paint an ominous picture of a broad Chinese Communist Party conspiracy to undermine America’s economic and political system.
These allegations were also made without essential context regarding the actions of other nations or the United States itself. For example, in castigating China’s decision to expel some American journalists in March, O’Brien neglected to acknowledge that it was taken in retaliation to the U.S. placing restrictions on Chinese government media outlets operating in America. Likewise, his discussion of the security threats posed by Chinese technology companies made no mention of how these practices are modeled in part on practices of the U.S. government, which installs its own backdoors in hardware and software produced by U.S. companies.
These speeches highlight the irony that instead of implementing prudent policies that protect national security and data privacy, while safeguarding the civil rights of Chinese Americans and other U.S. citizens, the Trump administration is waging vitriolic ideological warfare against Beijing. It is employing overheated rhetoric to villainize China’s role in the world and its influence in America, all while professing a patronizing and simplistic “respect and admiration for the Chinese people.” In so doing, it is raising unfounded, broad-brush suspicion of economic, scientific, political, cultural, and interpersonal exchanges between the United States and China, the vast majority of which strengthen both countries. Such tactics compromise America’s vibrancy, openness, and pluralism by employing some of the same tactics of fear, closure, and intimidation that the CCP itself employs.
This strategy is most directly harming Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans who are increasingly subject to discrimination and suspicion. They experience this harm through both the direct harassment of U.S. law enforcement and customs officials and, indirectly, through the government’s efforts to encourage companies and universities to exclude or monitor Chinese employees and students.
Thus, although there are indeed strong structural impediments to a new cold war, there is a risk that the current administration will succeed in exploiting the downward shift in U.S. public opinion toward China precipitated by the pandemic to undermine the dense networks between American and Chinese companies, state and provincial governments, universities, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. This could, in turn, erode a critical foundation that has served as a bulwark against U.S.-China conflict and hostility.
That said, these relationships have been nurtured and developed over the course of several decades. They are heavily institutionalized, with enormous investments of time, money, and goodwill. They have been boons to the American economy, generating jobs for American workers, demand for American goods and services, and synergistic scientific innovation. They should prove resilient to this administration’s red-baiting.
And it is essential that they do. For beyond their economic value, these ties enable America to better understand the complexities of China’s society and culture, its virtues and vices, its resilience and fragility, its humanity and banality — and vice versa. These humanizing insights are essential to blunt the ugly nationalism and racism increasingly manifest in American imaginations of China.
These ties also act as conduits for insight into the ways China’s authoritarian government seeks to control its people — and the interactive ways the pluralistic Chinese society navigates through, over, and around those mechanisms of control. They can help America to see that the story of China’s political development is still being written by Chinese people — belying the more simplistic narratives that imply China under Xi Jinping has reached a final and all-consuming totalitarian end state.
Such complex insights, in turn, are essential for the crafting of good U.S. strategy toward China — strategy that is nuanced, calibrated, and up to the difficult task of guiding an increasingly complex relationship that is critical to American and global peace, prosperity, and survival.