Are the U.S. and China Headed Toward a New Cold War?

For the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, Harry Harding mapped the deteriorating relationship between two of the world’s greatest superpowers and offered his predictions for a Cold War “2.0.”

In spite of the question mark in his talk’s title, there’s no question that the United States and China are on the brink of a new Cold War, Harry Harding told an online audience recently. But this new Cold War will be quite different from the old one. A professor of public policy and the founding dean of the Batten School, Harding led the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, speaking and taking questions on both the erosion of U.S.-China relations and what a Cold War “2.0” might look like.

There will be some similarities between the Cold War we know and the Cold War of the future, he said. The new conflict, like the old one, will likely involve arms races and occasional military confrontations, but these will still take place “under the shadow of mutually assured destruction, which will hopefully prevent them from escalating,” Harding said. Although the political differences between China and the U.S. aren’t as stark as those that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the new face-off will still concern ideology, pitting state capitalism against market capitalism and liberal democracy against what has been coined “consultative authoritarianism,” he argued.

Yet the similarities only go so far, he said: “That’s why I call it a Cold War 2.0, rather than simply a second Cold War.”

Some differences will likely soften the conflict. In a  time of global interdependence, other countries are not as prone to take sides as they were in the days of the Soviet Union, Harding explained. “And in this more globalized world, the need for cooperation will be far greater than it was between the United States and Soviet Union, as the COVID pandemic suggests,” he noted.

But other differences will exacerbate the situation. The Chinese economy is far more dynamic than the Soviet Union’s, which will likely mean greater technological competition that will involve not just missiles and missile defenses, but also artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G telecommunications, and COVID vaccines. Additionally, he said, “there will be new ways of using social media to conduct  what traditionally has been called public diplomacy, but with the aim not just to persuade, but also to polarize, delegitimize, and even subvert public opinion in the target country.

How did we get here? Harding is writing a book that attempts to answer that question. In response to a series of crises in the 1980s and 90s, including Tiananmen Square and the Taiwan Strait M<missile Crisis, the U.S. and China employed a variety of strategies to build a more stable and cooperative partnership, he said. The two countries increased interdependence between their economies, cultivated personal relations between their leaders, and attempted to integrate China into international systems, such as the World Trade Organization.

Since the early 2000s, however, the relationship between the two countries has been deteriorating. The U.S. began to see China “as a strategic competitor or even a rival, not a potential partner,” said Harding.

China, on the other hand, presented the situation along a clear binary, and warned that a competitive approach was not an option, Harding said: “The only choice, the Chinese insisted, was cooperation or confrontation.”

In Harding’s view, both countries made mistakes. China failed to realize that the U.S. would tire of the Chinese failure to make fundamental political and economic reforms, and the U.S. “made or implied” many promises to China that it failed to keep. However, other elements of the situation were inevitable: Many strategies the two countries used to strengthen their relationship were founded on assumptions that were “unrealistic, or even naive,” Harding said. “Interdependence was not going to make China a liberal democracy, nor was China going to accept an international system it had not helped shape, no matter how much Washington insisted that the system was beneficial” to China’s interests.

In response to a question from a participant about how the results of the election would influence the U.S.-China relationship, Harding said he believed that a Trump win could mean further sanctions on China and a situation that continues to be “unsettled, unstable, and volatile.” He predicted that Biden, on the other hand, would be “tough [on China] in a different way,” by focusing on working with our friends and allies to resist Chinese initiatives the U.S. finds objectionable.

“Our democracy is not functioning well, our economy is slowing down, our relationships with friends and allies around the world are not as strong as they should be,” he said. “I’m hoping Mr. Biden will put the focus on making America competitive again.”

In the end, the difference in values between the U.S. and China is simply too great to ignore, Harding argued. Even peaceful coexistence, in the sense of American acceptance of the Chinese political system,  would be hard. Regardless of what the next four years bring, “the question is not whether a Cold War 2.0 can be avoided,” he said, “but whether it can be managed without militarization and open conflict.”