In the US-China relationship, each stride forward is often met with twice the setback

Questions are again being raised about the future trajectory of the world’s most consequential relationship.


Chinese and U.S. flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing, China January 21, 2021. — AFP

July 4, 2023

ISLAMABAD – THE recent trip by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China marked an effort to stabilise relations between the two global powers that have plunged to an all-time low. The visit seemed to go well and included a meeting between Blinken and President Xi Jinping.

But, as has become a pattern in this complex relationship, any step forward is almost always followed by two steps backwards. And so it was this time. President Jo Biden’s description of Xi as a “dictator” at a fundraiser prompted a strong response from Beijing, which called the remarks irresponsible and a provocation. This again revived the friction between them.

Then the red carpet rolled out by the Biden administration for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington and the thrust of their joint statement reflected the apparent US effort to cement India more firmly in an anti-China coalition and use it as a counterweight to Beijing.

Questions are again being raised about the future trajectory of the world’s most consequential relationship. There is now a rich body of literature that deals with the US-China confrontation and examines how this is likely to play out. Recent books include The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd, The Long Game by Rush Doshi, Avoiding the ‘Thucydides Trap’ edited by Dong Wang and Travis Tanner, How China Loses by Luke Patey, Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China Won? and Oliver Letwin’s China vs America: A Warning.

Views, of course, diverge especially over who will prevail in the contest. As do assessments of whether their intense competition presages a new cold war and if their fraught relations can drift into conflict, even if neither side may want it. That miscalculation, especially over the heavily militarised area around Taiwan, can lead to such an outcome is a worry for many countries in Asia and beyond. But even if conflict is avoided, their turbulent relationship will keep the global economy and the world in an unstable state.

An intelligent new book now joins the debate about the world’s most critical bilateral relationship although its canvas also extends to Russia. Cold Peace: Avoiding a New Cold War by Michael Doyle, a Columbia University professor, offers a comprehensive review of the many issues that lie behind East-West tensions. The author sets out to examine whether a new cold war is likely and how different it might be from the Cold War of the past.

He points to the dangers of a looming cold war but argues that this is not inevitable. Instead, a ‘cold peace’ can be established if certain key compromises are made by competing powers, which can yield cooperation in critical areas.

How the US-China relationship plays out has far-reaching repercussions for the world.

The distinction Doyle draws between the contours and character of the old and new cold war is insightful. He writes that like the original Cold War, the emerging cold war is a deeply structured conflict, both internationally and transnationally. There are similarities. Both are “non-armed conflicts” involving rivalries that go beyond contests for influence, power and prosperity. But he suggests that while Cold War I was fought primarily through proxy wars, arms races and espionage, the current confrontation entails a combination of cyber espionage, technological and industrial competition, political interference and arms contests.

He shows convincingly that the emerging Cold War II is not as extensive, extreme and polarising as its predecessor. Its reach is not yet global and “the sides are less clear-cut”, with alliances not so firmly formed or ideologically defined. But the weaponisation of cyber technologies is making the confrontation a deadly one.

Doyle offers three reasons why the burgeoning cold war, dangerous as it is, will not be a replay of the original one. One, the likely costs of an escalating cold war between the US and China. Two, the large global common interest in interdependent prosperity and saving the planet from environmental degradation. And three, he sees China and Russia as authoritarian but not totalitarian.

The book’s main concern is how to prevent a second cold war. Doyle identifies what he sees as four bridges towards this end. The first concerns US-China cooperation on the shared challenge of climate change mitigation. The second is finding a negotiated end to the Ukraine conflict with Russia.

He sets forth a package of proposals on this, some workable, some unrealistic. The third bridge is détente between the US and China. Here too ideas for a compromise on Taiwan are presented. The fourth bridge to a ‘cold peace’ is to forge new rules on cyber. While acknowledging clashing interests and ambitions, he argues that compromises are possible to limit the harmful fallout of cyber hacking and warfare.

For Doyle, diplomatic accommodation to achieve a cold peace would also involve a “non-subversion pact”, resting on mutual commitments not to attack the political independence and territorial integrity of each other. That also means barring covert operations. The book has interesting ‘solutions’ to many of the vexed issues pushing the world towards more turbulence and instability. But as others have also observed, it overemphasises the role of domestic factors and ideology as drivers of a new cold war.

Doyle clearly comes down on the side of greater engagement between the US and China, agreeing with other authors and experts about the danger of collision between them. Rudd made the case for “managed strategic cooperation”, Mahbubani for the two powers to seek areas of convergence based on their core interests, while Letwin called for “peaceful competition”.

One of the most influential books on this subject, published in 2017, was Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Harvard scholar Graham Allison.

In this, he invoked the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s depiction of the deadly trap that emerges when one great power challenges or is poised to displace another. Thucydides had emphasised the inevitability of war when fear of the rise of a new power determined the established power’s actions.

Allison’s advice to avoid Thucydides’s Trap resonates in Doyle’s book and in Henry Kissinger’s warning that any drift into conflict would have catastrophic consequences. Kissinger doesn’t exaggerate when he says that the fate of the world depends on whether the US and China can get along.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

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