President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping | July 8, 2017 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Why the Struggle with China is not a replay of the Cold War

(The following was adapted from remarks made by Ambassador Freeman to the Asia America Forum on September 25, 2020. It has been edited for length.)

Washington has declared war on China. The administration and its allies hope that the war will be “cold,” but have no strategy for keeping it so. I find it noteworthy that the most belligerently anti-Chinese members of the U.S. Senate are also its youngest. They came to adulthood after the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War and have no experience of its anxieties. They appear to take its sudden end as predestined. Their military experience, if any, has been in the contemporary equivalent of the 19th century’s Indian Wars — combat with gun-toting farmers with no air forces, air defenses, navies, guided missiles, or nuclear weapons. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc’s riff on Britain’s hubris in its colonial wars: 

“Whatever happens, we have got
Close air support and they have not.”

The Cold War was radically different from this. It was a global struggle between two competing ideological blocs and nuclear-armed power centers capable of destroying not just each other, but all life on the planet. It began as a series of squabbles over the spoils of a worldwide war. Each side strove to consolidate spheres of politico-military and economic influence and deny the other access to them. But each learned to avoid confrontations that might lead to armed combat, each limited itself to proxy wars aimed at sustaining or imposing its ideology somewhere not in the grip of the other and each sought to minimize and contain interaction with the other. 

The struggle we Americans have now initiated with China has none of these characteristics. To analogize it to the Cold War is not only lazy, it is profoundly misleading. The Sino-American split is not the sequel to a bloody world war; this is a contest born of contending national self-images and ambitions, not ideologies. The struggle with China is a bilateral contest in which others may or may not choose to take sides, not one between two committed blocs of nations. China is a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.

Emulating China’s autocracy by closing America to foreign goods, services, people, and ideas, as the United States is now doing, is self-defeating. The U.S. contention with a resurgent China cannot be conducted in the same manner as the Cold War. It will not end, as the Cold War did, with the voluntary resignation of an ideologically disillusioned and exhausted adversary.

* * * 

In Chinese literature, there is a beast called a ain’t that is satirically defined by the “four things it ain’t.” The head and face of the beast is slender like a horse, but it ain’t a horse. Its horns are like a deer, but different. Its neck is like a camel, but it is no camel. Its tail is like a donkey, but it’s not an ass. The point is that describing an “ain’t” by reference to previously encountered animals is worse than no help at all in understanding it.

China is the “ain’t” of today’s geopolitics. It is ruled by a Communist Party but is an overachieving participant in global capitalism, committed to free trade, expanded foreign investment, and a market economy guided by industrial policy, not central planning. China is armed with nuclear weapons, but it has sized and configured its arsenal for a retaliatory response to an attack by other nuclear powers, not for a first strike — which it has abjured and is not equipped to conduct. China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it is decidedly inferior.  China is once again the immovable economic and cultural center of its native region — where the United States has for seventy-five years been the resident overlord; but China seeks no “allies” and has no political satrapies or military dependencies. 

Crucially, China is not the Soviet Union: China has no messianic ideology to export; China is not engaged in regime change operations to create an ideological sphere of influence; China’s relationships with foreign nations are transactional rather than sentimental; China’s economy dwarfs that of the USSR; China already possesses one-fourth of the world’s scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematics workforce; China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel;  China spends two percent or less of it GDP on its military vs. the estimated 9 to 15 percent of the USSR — and China has not built a nuclear arsenal to match that of either the United States or Russia. 

Equally important, the United States of the 2020s is not the America of the early Cold War. As the Cold War began, the United States produced one-half or more of the world’s manufactures. It now makes about one-sixth. During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay. Further, legacy U.S. alliances formed to contain the USSR have little relevance to American contention with China: US-European alliances like NATO are withering and no Asian security partner of the United States wants to choose between America and China. 

Since 1950, the Taiwan issue has been a casus belli between the United States and China. But U.S. allies see it as a fight among Chinese to be managed rather than joined. If the U.S. mismanages the Taiwan issue, as it now appears to be doing, it will have no overt allies in the resulting war. No claimant against China in the South China Sea is prepared to join the U.S. in naval conflict with China. In short, this time is different. Sino-American relations have a history and dynamic that do not conform to those of the US-Soviet contest. And the United States is not equipped to inspire and lead opposition to China. The US-China contention is far broader than that of the Cold War, in part because China, unlike the determinedly autarkic USSR, is part of the same global society as the United States. The battlefields include global governance, geoeconomics, trade, investment, finance, currency usage, supply chain management, technology standards and systems, and scientific collaboration, in addition to the geopolitical and military domains in which the Cold War played out. 

The United States is isolated on a widening list of issues. It has withdrawn or excluded itself from a growing number of multilateral instruments of global and regional governance and is no longer able to lead the international community. Americans have repeatedly declined to recapitalize or cooperate in reforming international financial institutions to meet new global and regional investment requirements. This has led China, India, and other rising powers to create supplementary lenders like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank. 

Four years ago, the U.S. unilaterally decided that geopolitics are inherently driven by great power military rivalry that precludes cooperation. The newly pugnacious U.S. stance legitimizes xenophobia and justifies bilateral approaches to foreign relations that ignore issues like global terrorism, pandemic diseases, climate change, migration, nuclear proliferation, or regional tensions, and cripple the global governance and international coordination needed to tackle them. The United States is going out of its way to demonstrate its indifference to the interests and sensibilities of its past and potential partners. It is withdrawing from international organizations it can no longer dominate. These actions amount to unilateral diplomatic disarmament and the creation of politico-economic vacuums for others — not just China — to fill.

Future historians will puzzle over why Americans have chosen to dismantle and discard the connections and capacities that long enabled the United States to direct the trend of events in most global and regional arenas. When they unravel this mystery, they will also need to explain the simultaneous collapse of the separation of powers structure on which the American republic was founded and on which its liberties were built. Fortunately for post-Constitutional America, China’s political system, despite the stability and prosperity it has fostered, has even less appeal beyond China’s borders. Both China and the United States are now repelling other nations rather than attracting them. If the U.S.-China contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. But armed conflict is not the central element in the Sino-American confrontation. 

After World War II, the United States made the rules. American statesmen crafted a world order that expressed American ideals and served American interests. In the post-Cold War period Washington began to disengage from the global institutions and norms it had sponsored. The United States has failed to ratify international compacts that regulate a widening range of arenas of importance to it. These include conventions on the law of the sea, nuclear testing, the arms trade, human rights, and crimes against humanity. Washington has withdrawn from or suspended compliance with conventions on the laws of war and agreements on arms control, combating climate change, and trade and investment. It has ceased to participate in or sought to sabotage a growing list of United Nations specialized agencies and related institutions. Notwithstanding the current global pandemic, these include the World Health Organization.

America’s withdrawal from its traditional role in global rule-setting and enforcement deprives it of the dominant influence it long exercised through the institutions it created. Other great powers remain wedded to the American-led order expressed in the United Nations Charter, but America’s exemption of itself from the comity of nations and its spontaneous metamorphosis from world leader to global dropout have left it unable to aggregate the power of other nations to its own. Washington’s resort to abusive language, threats and coercive measures has grown as its capacity to apply its power non-coercively has declined, further reducing the numbers of foreign allies, partners, and friends willing to bandwagon with America.

The decline in U.S. clout is made even more consequential by the fact that China has resources, including money, to offer its partners. The United States does not. The United States’ budget is in chronic deficit. Even routine government operations must now be funded with debt. America has spent trillions of borrowed dollars on wars in the Islamic world that it can neither win nor end. Its “forever wars” siphoned off the funds needed to keep its human and physical infrastructure at levels competitive with those of China and other great economic powers. They also crippled U.S. statecraft by defunding non-military means to advance American interests abroad and curtailing U.S. contributions to the international institutions charged with assuring global peace and development.

Coercive approaches to statecraft are inherently alienating. Claims to superiority that are not empirically substantiable are unpersuasive. Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power. Advocating democracy abroad while deviating from it at home destroys rather than enhances American credibility. America’s addiction to debt risks eventual financial collapse even as it limits immediate policy options both at home and abroad.

Unless the United States cures its fiscal feebleness, rebuilds the capacities and competence of its government, upgrades its human and physical infrastructure, and reopens itself to trade, investment, and immigration, America’s roles in global governance, trade, investment, finance, supply chain management, technology standards and systems, and scientific collaboration will continue to contract as those of China and others expand.  The United States’ capacity to innovate will decline, as will American well-being and self-confidence. This diminishment of the United States is not the consequence of Chinese predation but of American hubris, political ineptitude, and diplomatic decrepitude. 

The essence of any strategy is the efficient linkage of resources and capabilities to feasible objectives. Current U.S. China policy is strategy-free. With neither resources nor institutional capabilities to back it, it amounts to puerile fantasy. U.S. China policy at present is a classic example of demonizing a foreign foe to rally support at home and divert attention from festering political, economic, and social problems. This approach is highly unlikely to result in a Cold War-style victory for the United States or the Enlightenment values that gave birth to it. Quite the opposite.