Reykjavik Summit : President Reagan departs after final meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland, 10/12/1986. (Reagan White House photos/public domain)
Nostalgia? The Cold War is a moldy oldie, not a US-China theme song

There’s an attempt to harken back to the good ole days of the USSR rivalry in the context of competition with Beijing. That’s dangerous.

The Biden administration’s first U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage, Alaska two weeks ago was an opportunity to repair some of the damage done to the relationship during the previous four years, but instead it devolved into a public display of recriminations and complaints. 

Secretary of State Blinken’s hectoring about the supposed Chinese threat to the “rules-based order” was ill-advised, and it opened the United States up to obvious charges of double standards and hypocrisy. Washington needs to distinguish between Chinese policies that Washington finds undesirable and those that genuinely pose a threat to international peace and security. U.S. officials and analysts tend to conflate the two, and that leads them to exaggerate the extent of China’s “revisionism” and to overstate Chinese ambitions, and that in turn encourages them to pursue a more aggressive “containment” policy than U.S. and allied security requires.

If the United States and China are going to avoid an increasingly costly and militarized rivalry in East Asia, it is imperative that the U.S. does not try to back China into a corner. On that score, the Biden administration is off to a bad start.

Blinken blurred the line between different sets of policies by grouping China’s repressive internal behavior with its treatment of U.S. allies. He characterized all of them as threatening the “rules-based order that maintains global stability.” It didn’t help matters that the U.S. delegation’s translator apparently mistranslated a number of statements from Blinken and Sullivan in a way that made them sound more hostile than they were. 

It is appropriate for the U.S. to raise human rights abuses and to object to the cultural genocide being carried out against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China, but when these issues are lumped in with other U.S. policies in the region that will make it seem as if the U.S. is raising these issues opportunistically to advance other goals. As Michael Swaine, Jessica Lee, and Rachel Esplin Odell recommended in the Quincy Institute’s report on U.S. policy in East Asia, the U.S. should compartmentalize advocacy for human rights in China so that the advocacy will be more credible and not so easily dismissed.

Director Yang Jiechi’s statement was full of familiar criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, but it also included a significant affirmation of the importance of international law and the U.N. Notably, Yang contrasted this with a U.S.-led or U.S.-defined order: “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called “rules-based” international order.” It is understandably difficult for other governments to take U.S. criticisms about China’s alleged destabilizing activities seriously when the U.S. has made such a habit of running roughshod over international law for the last twenty years. When Yang contrasts a U.N.-centered system with the U.S.-led order, he is taking advantage of the fact that the U.S. has frequently been a leading violator of the order that it claims to uphold. 

It is significant that the Chinese government continues to identify itself publicly with the international status quo. A truly aggressive revisionist power would not feel the need to pay lip service to these things, but China still benefits from the current system in many ways and does not seek to overthrow it. Like other great powers, it tries to bend the system to its advantage, but its willingness to operate as part of the existing system should allow the U.S. and China to manage their disputes without falling into a “new Cold War.” 

There is unfortunately a growing consensus in the U.S. that a “new Cold War” with China is necessary and desirable. This often takes the form of nostalgia for the supposed national unity and progress that rivalry with the USSR generated. Hal Brands has been one of the leading boosters of a Cold War-style conflict with China, and to that end he paints a very rosy picture of Cold War America that emphasizes progress on civil rights and economic development. He touts the “upsides” of a similar conflict with China on the grounds that the Cold War was a “force for constructive change.” While there was indeed progress in some areas during the Cold War, this more often came despite the militarized rivalry with a hostile power than because of it. As we have already seen during the last year, demagogic anti-China rhetoric from politicians in both parties has contributed to a significant increase in anti-Asian hatred and violence

As tensions with China increase, the danger to all Asian-Americans will also increase. If the U.S. were to engage in a “new Cold War” with China, the toxic effects on American society would almost certainly far outweigh any benefits that might be derived from it. We should have already learned from the last twenty years of the “war on terror” that prolonged conflict overseas will boomerang and hurt Americans here at home by fueling harassment, discrimination, and violence against ethnic and religious minorities.

There is a similarly misguided idea that a “new Cold War” with China will encourage more public spending on domestic needs. Doyle McManus recently suggested that “a little cold war could be a beautiful thing” because it will force the U.S. to invest more in infrastructure and research, but this gets several things wrong. For one thing, the U.S. could choose to invest in these things without committing itself to a costly rivalry with a major power. For another, the extra military spending that supporters of a “new Cold War” would demand would crowd out domestic spending even more than the military budget does today. 

Our current political system is unlikely to accommodate the much higher level of taxation that prevailed during most of the Cold War, so we cannot count on rivalry with China to have the same side-effects on higher education and scientific research that the Cold War had. The most vocal China hawks are eager to bar Chinese students from studying in U.S. universities, but they have no interest in making up the shortfall in funding that such a ban would create. It is much more likely that it will end up becoming a heavily militarized response that wastes enormous amounts of money fighting in peripheral conflicts, and by diverting resources away from domestic needs for years to come it will hasten American decline.

Nostalgia for the Cold War requires forgetting about the tens of millions of people who were killed in the wars that U.S.-Soviet rivalry spawned and worsened. Pursuing a similar rivalry with China threatens to turn many countries into battlegrounds in a senseless “great power competition” that will not make the U.S. or our allies more secure. Hostility towards China is a choice, not an inevitability. As the two most powerful countries in the world, the U.S. and China have a responsibility to create a workable modus vivendi that eschews the arms races and proxy wars of another era. 

Rather than wasting decades and countless lives on fruitless confrontation before recognizing the need for détente, as we did during the Cold War, the U.S. and China should pursue détente first and work together on shared interests.

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