The United States needs to be clear that its sharp conflict with Communist China is a new cold war. Today’s China is a revisionist and expansionist totalitarian state whose leaders’ dream is a world they can dominate and reshape. That they are developing the power to make their dream a reality makes China not just a competitor or adversary, but an existential threat to the existing world order, the sovereignty of other nations, and the values and freedoms Americans treasure and have died to protect. Denying or ignoring this cold reality won’t make it go away.
Like it or not, we once again find ourselves at a turning point in history. Beijing is bent upon creating a world that is safe for itself and its partner dictatorships Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Belarus. It also plans to quash any person or nation with the courage to question its aims or values. In the process, China will destroy the rules-based international order that has helped prevent a world war for seventy-six years and has led to an unprecedented increase in the standard of living around the world.
It is time for the world to recognize this reality for what it is and for the United States to lead a coalition of free nations willing to vigilantly defend the values we cherish. China’s growing economic and military power impressive, but the combined resources of the United States and of the Free World dwarf those of China and its partner dictatorships. China will not start a war it cannot reasonably expect to win. But Chinese leaders are gamblers who will, in the parlance of the poker table, go “all in” if they perceive their adversaries are weak, disunited, and perhaps bluffing when they say they are prepared to stand up to Beijing’s threats.
Our aim in the China Cold War must be the same as in the Soviet Cold War: Stop our adversary’s destabilizing and expansionist actions while doing all we can to convince its leaders that their dangerous and self-defeating polices make no sense and must change if they are to prosper.
The United States needs to provide clear, unambiguous intellectual leadership in this existential battle for freedom in the world and that must include calling it what it is: “Cold War” is the right label for this conflict.
Recent Labels for Relation with China
The “responsible stakeholder” label used during the George W. Bush presidency reflected a reasonable national security bet at its time. China’s moves under Deng Xiaoping toward a market economy led to unprecedented economic growth that benefitted Chinese citizens but made many within the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) nervous. The United States hoped that the emerging Chinese middle class would wrest greater freedom from their leaders and that Beijing would act responsibly abroad.
But the bet did not work. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has reclaimed its paramount role, reversed many of the capitalist reforms, doubled down on repression at home, and launched an unprecedented military buildup while bullying China’s neighbors and threatening those who might stand in the way of its policies.
The “great power competition” label adopted by the Trump administration was significant progress at its time. It communicated that from the U.S. perspective the dominant element of the relationship with a revisionist China was competition on a global scale.
Today, the Biden administration refers to “cooperation, competition, and confrontation” with China. It is descriptive but not prescriptive. Do these three often contradictory forms of engagement get equal weight since they are listed together? If not, which of the three sets the tone for the relationship? The Chinese seem happy with a competition in which the United States might well be willing to surrender strategic advantages in exchange for, say, a reduction in emissions from its coal-burning power plants.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been rhetorically willing to criticize Beijing’s genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang even as his boss dismisses doing much about it because we have different “norms” which supposedly need to be respected.
It is Time for Truth in Labeling
“Great power competition” no longer reflects today’s reality: The defining geostrategic contest of our time is pitting the United States against China. Russia is a potentially dangerous regional power like Turkey and Iran but hardly in the same league as the United States and China. Moscow can be troublesome but does not represent an existential threat to the United States except as a useful ally of Beijing.
Eerie Parallels to the Soviet Cold War
China is the USSR of today. China’s ambitions are as unacceptable as were those of Communist Russia in an earlier day and must be thwarted if the world as we know it is to survive. The Cold War with the USSR was won without resorting to war and we must accomplish it again this time.
The tactical center of the contest with the Soviets was Europe; with China it is Asia. The Soviets presented a formidable threat to U.S. forces and U.S. allies in Europe then, as China does in Asia today. Both regions are strategically crucial to the United States and the rest of the world. The tripwire with the Soviets was Berlin. Today, with China it is Taiwan.
Threat to American democracy. China is an Orwellian police state where the government uses the immense power of high technology and artificial intelligence to control the lives of its citizens. The Soviets were just as obsessed with total control, at one point spending over 30 percent of their GDP the security. China is exporting its censorship and has forced companies in the United States to retract statements they objected to and to apologize. Were it to win the Cold War, China would limit the freedoms of Americans at home and abroad.
Countering today’s China will be costly and difficult. The sacrifices we demand of our people require our leaders to forthrightly and honestly tell the American people why such sacrifices are necessary. They need to appreciate the threat an aggressive China poses not just to our friends or to the sea lanes or to our prestige, but to the way Americans live their lives. The American people have to know that China isn’t just an economic competitor but an existential threat to us and future generations of Americans. Our leaders must be clear about it to get the domestic political support they must have to win this fight.
China is using its economic power to constrain democracies. Look at the economic retaliation against Australia after it asked for a Covid-19 origin investigation, against South Korea for installing defensive missiles despite Chinese objections, or against Japan for holding its ground regarding disputed islands.
Threat to U.S. technological preeminence with military implications. China is making rapid advances in artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies with extensive military applications. The Soviets too were a formidable technological competitor. They put the first satellite and the first man in space. Their military technology was comparable to that of the United States in nuclear weapons, missiles, tanks, aircraft, ships, and submarines.
Threat to U.S. freedom ideology. China is promoting authoritarianism around the world while the Soviets promoted traditional communism, but the threat is the same. The Soviets had their communist satellites. China is making common cause with dictatorships like Russia, Iran, North Korea, Belarus, and Venezuela and actively promotes authoritarian capitalism in developing countries. Just like the Soviets, China is giving economic benefits to developing countries that support it at the UN and other international fora. China, like the Soviet Union before it, has an aggressive policy to introduce its authoritarian ideology in UN position papers.
Were China to win, concentration camps for minorities (as they have for Uighurs) and lack of respect for international treaties (as in Hong Kong) would become internationally acceptable.
Mobilizing the American people and the Free World
We need to hear a crystal-clear message that this is an existential conflict.
Once it is labeled a “cold war,” the China conflict becomes the central issue of U.S. foreign policy. Policymakers will then design clear-eyed whole-of-society policies to win it.
The United States will then ask its allies and friends to take sides and they will. Germany will sell fewer cars in China and France fewer luxury goods. American trade with China will decrease as well and Americans will find fewer “Made in China” goods at Walmart. Adopting the Cold War label will help increase preparedness in the United States and the Free World. And it will discourage the Chinese from testing in war our strength and resolve.
Relations with China will Continue
We do not urge cutting off all trade relations with China or attempting to isolate Beijing. It is in the interest of the American people to continue selective U.S.-China business relations. But both the United States and the Free World must always be mindful of the national security implications of these relationships.
Direct outreach to the Chinese people should increase. Through Voice of America and other means, the United States must let the Chinese people know that we support their aspirations for a better life and remind them that better relations foster prosperity as well as peace.
So should government-to-government relations. During the détente phase of the Soviet Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union signed several agreements to prevent accidental military clashes, on arms control following Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to promote cooperative research, and to expand trade. Agreement on mutually beneficial matters is worth seeking even with one’s adversaries to lessen the chances of accidental conflict.
While we might hope that one day the Chinese people will be free of their Communist overlords, regime change should not be our goal—whether the CCP survives or vanishes is up to the Chinese people. Our concern should be the policies that make Beijing a threat to our national security and world peace.
The Final Outcome and Intermediate Risks
We won the Cold War with the USSR, and we should be able to win this one as well… and in much the same way. Communist China will fail in its global ambitions after it first fails at home because communism is a failed ideology. The Soviet Union collapsed because the regime did not meet its peoples’ aspirations of political freedom and economic prosperity.
The Chinese people have an unspoken deal with their rulers: As long as the economy grows and the standard of living increases, the people accept its lack of political freedoms. China first introduced elements of capitalism in 1978 and its GDP growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year since then. Under Xi Jinping, however, it has been reversing many of its capitalist reforms. For this reason and others, China is projected to grow at 5 percent this decade and slower after that.
This slower growth will exacerbate China’s simmering internal problems. U.S. GDP per capita is about $65,000; China’s is about $10,000. And the regional disparities are vast: GDP per capita is over $20,000 in Beijing and Shanghai but under $8,000 in Tibet and Xinjiang, and under $6,500 in northeastern China.
What is growing, though, is the brutality and reach of China’s techno-dictatorship. The Chinese people’s desire for freedom did not end as the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. As tensions within China grow, a restive population can be expected to once again demand change.
Internationally, China has border conflicts with almost all its neighbors and tense relations with some more distant neighbors like Australia. Its limited soft power appeal has been further reduced by its lack of transparency on the Covid-19 pandemic, snuffing out Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the genocide of Uighurs.
All this will make for a dangerous decade. Dictatorships sensing problems at home often resort to a messianic nationalism to rally support. This makes a Chinese assault on Taiwan or renewed conflict with its neighbors a possibility that cannot be discounted.
The United States did not seek this existential conflict and cannot avoid it. To win this multi-decade contest, the United States must organize a whole-of-society effort at home and also lead the Free World. The first step is to recognize that it is a “Cold War.” And to call it that.
David Keene is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center of National Interest and was chairman of the American Conservative Union for twenty-eight years.
Dan Negrea, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, held leadership positions at the Department of State and was a Wall Street executive. He defected from Communist Romania.