September 18, 2023
NEW DELHI – That the United States of America is entering a consequential period in its relations with China is beyond doubt. The trajectory of this bilateral relationship will shape both countries’ foreign policy agendas for decades to come. At a time when the characterisation of the intensifying competition between the USA and China as “a new Cold War” has gained global currency, what aspects of the US-Soviet or original Cold War are applicable even today? Matthew Turpin of the Hoover Institution nails it in a recent research article when he writes that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views the USA as an existential threat. That is the starting point of this debate. Over the past few years, a new geopolitical condition has emerged.
The USA and China coexist, if somewhat uneasily, in a multipolar world in which each side is deeply suspicious of and hostile to the worldview of the other. Simultaneously, adds Turpin, both Washington and Beijing recognise that they cannot overpower their rival, which compels them to avoid direct military conflict while pushing their rivalry into other domains. Pithily put, this geopolitical condition is called a cold war. Thus, it is important to differentiate between the term “cold war”, and the proper noun “Cold War,” an event that took place between the USA and the USSR from 1947 to 1991. The historical event involved specific circumstances and actors, but the condition defined by the term (a state of political hostility between countries that unfolds across all domains short of open, direct warfare) aptly applies to today’s Sino-American situation, just as it did a generation ago to the US-Soviet rivalry. Therefore, goes the argument, the question that some scholars and commentators still ask ~ are the USA and China ‘destined’ for a new cold war ~ is a category error, iterates Turpin. The cold war already exists.
A unique attribute of cold wars, however, is that their beginning can only be perceived in retrospect; belligerents don’t issue formal declarations of hostility. A cold war starts incrementally as the weight of actions by both sides builds “until we reach what George Orwell called a peace that is no peace”. Beijing seems to have learnt lessons from the Cold War better than that confrontation’s victor, at least in one respect. If your rival is reluctant to acknowledge a cold war exists, it can be advantageous to paint them as harbouring a “Cold War mentality” as the CCP and the top echelons of the People’s Republic of China routinely does. It helps complicate the adversary’s political decision-making, especially if it is a democracy which for all its flaws America is, even as one wages a cold war against it as China is certainly doing.
That is the grim reality. Costly and dangerous as it is, the American establishment, especially of the left-liberal variety, needs to internalise it if it is to design an effective foreign policy vis-à-vis Beijing.