Many observers question the assessment that strategic tensions between the United States and China are akin to those that emerged between the United States and the Soviet Union seven decades earlier; a confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers with rival blocs of influence and minimal socioeconomic exchange will necessarily differ in fundamental respects from a competition between two highly interdependent powers that are focused primarily on mastering frontier technologies and achieving economic centrality. The distinguished historian Melvyn Leffler makes the point succinctly: “We should not turn our rivalry with China into a Cold War by embracing a bad analogy.”
Nonetheless, many leaders in Washington and Beijing appear to have concluded that they are indeed entering into a new Cold War or at least a new type of Cold War: the two countries increasingly depict one another in adversarial terms and assess that growing competition between them—principally economic, but also military and ideological—is foreclosing the possibility of even minimal cooperation. In November 2020, invoking George Kennan’s famed long telegram, the State Department published a report in which it concluded that China “aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order . . . but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.” In September 2019, with trade and technological tensions between Washington and Beijing intensifying, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that his country would confront a range of difficulties along its path to becoming a “powerful socialist country” by 2049, the centennial of the People’s Republic’s founding. He declared that Beijing would counter all threats to that ambition and, invoking the revolutionary rhetoric of Mao Zedong, warned that it “must win the struggle.”
How confident does China feel as it navigates today’s uncertain waters? During the Cold War, the world’s foremost power, the United States, came to conclude that its principal competitor, the Soviet Union, was in systemic decline. Today’s putative “new Cold War,” however, has inverted the perceptions: it is a resurgent China that regards a preeminent United States as terminally languishing—a perception that has gained considerable strength in recent years.
The US national security establishment was not unanimous in concluding that the Soviet Union was in structural decline; indeed, certain constituencies therein were preparing themselves for an indefinite struggle. Nor did it reach that judgment at the outset of the Cold War; the CIA assessed through the early 1960s, in fact, that the Soviet economy was growing significantly faster than that of the United States. It is misleading, though, to suggest that the United States was oblivious to its antagonist’s internal difficulties and, it follows, unalive to the possibility that those difficulties could diminish the Soviet Union’s long-term strategic prospects. Indeed, as diplomatic historian Marc Trachtenberg demonstrates, while “neither the CIA analysts nor the academics were able to predict that the Soviet system would collapse when it did,” they had begun concluding as early as Lyndon Johnson’s presidency that its “economic problems could be expected to worsen unless the Soviet economy changed in fundamental ways.” Specifically, with the marginal rate of return on its investments in capital stock declining, they ventured that the Soviet economy would stagnate unless Moscow was able to increase its productivity. That view grew more entrenched in the intervening decades. Trachtenberg notes that “among specialists, and to a certain extent in the educated public as a whole, by around 1980 a certain picture had come into focus. The USSR’s prospects appeared grim; the Soviet populace seemed increasingly disaffected.”
Today, a little over three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, China increasingly sees the United States as a wasting titan, if yet a formidable one. It is important to note that this judgment has been taking hold in the country’s national security establishment for well over a decade, with the global financial crisis marking a critical inflection point. That event, as well as America’s seeming inability, if not unwillingness, to extricate itself from the Middle East’s chaos, contributed to the impression of a superpower that was profligate at home and undisciplined abroad. In March 2012, one of China’s foremost America watchers, Peking University’s Wang Jisi, observed that “the United States is seen in China generally as a declining power over the long run.” He hastened to note that “China’s top leadership has been sober-minded enough . . . not to have reached the conclusion that America’s superpower status is seriously challenged as of now,” but noted that “Beijing still sees the lack of confidence and competence of the United States on the global stage and a quite chaotic picture in U.S. national politics.”
This impression has taken further root in recent years, owing in part to the narrowing of the economic gap between the two countries: China’s gross domestic product was over 71 percent as large as America’s in 2020, and its economy is projected to grow by 7.9 percent this year. The perception has also grown as Beijing has watched while US foreign policy undercut many of the enduring pillars of the country’s influence—perhaps none more essential than its diplomatic network (Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong concluded in 2011 that “the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends”). US foreign policy of late has amplified bilateral trade frictions with partners, increasing the assiduousness with which they are maneuvering to circumvent the US dollar, and often regarded longstanding friends with greater disdain than determined competitors.
Chinese leaders increasingly believe that time is on their country’s side, even if they have to steel themselves for a protracted and difficult period of contestation with the United States. Measures such as escalating US tariffs on Chinese exports and sanctioning major Chinese telecommunications companies seem notionally competitive. They may backfire, however, not only because they are compelling China to accelerate its push for indigenous innovation and economic self-reliance (a core focus of its “dual circulation” effort), but also because they are incenting even US allies and partners to reduce their reliance on US technology in the event that Washington were to weaponize supply chains against them. Thus does Tufts University’s Chris Miller urge the United States
not [to] misinterpret the lessons from its pressure on Huawei. Washington has shown that it knows how to wield its technological power. But it is one thing to use power and another to accumulate it. The campaign against Huawei works only because other countries rely on American technology. Now they have an incentive to diversify. And the American position is no longer as unassailable as it once was.
In Beijing’s eyes, explain esteemed China watchers Orville Schell and Susan Shirk, US actions bespeak “a declining power seeking to prolong its dominance by unfairly containing China’s rise.”
The past year has understandably imbued China with yet greater confidence. Beijing has largely contained the coronavirus pandemic within its borders, and it has registered an impressive economic recovery. Its exports reached a record $2.6 trillion last year, and it is poised to play a central role in resuscitating the rest of the world; Larry Hu, chief China economist for Macquarie Capital, notes that despite “all the noises on decoupling and deglobalization . . . the pandemic has deepened the ties between China and the rest of the world.” The conclusion this past November of the fifteen-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, accounting for some 30 percent of gross world product, will make China more central to the Indo-Pacific’s economic evolution, and its inking of an investment deal with the European Union the following month will expand its access to European markets.
Despite accounting for just over 4 percent of the world’s population, meanwhile, the United States accounts for roughly a quarter of global COVID-19 infections and a fifth of fatalities. While the number of Americans who have been vaccinated is steadily growing, the pandemic continues to rage; on January 7, the country recorded over four thousand COVID-19 deaths for the first time. This unprecedented health-cum-economic emergency has also placed in sharp relief many of America’s socioeconomic fissures, which, along with the insurrection that took place against Congress on January 6, have given China ample grounds for schadenfreude as it seeks to portray the United States as riven by domestic dysfunction and democracy as vulnerable to its own excesses. Bloomberg reports that there is renewed interest in China in America Against America, a 1988 book published by Wang Huning, who now serves on the Politburo Standing Committee; Wang predicted that America’s internal fissures would set it on a trajectory of terminal decline.
It is not surprising, then, that Xi believes that “time and the situation are in [China’s] favor,” with “opportunities in general outweighing challenges.” But Beijing should not discount Washington’s regenerative capacity. The United States has a longstanding record of channeling competitive anxieties into the service of national renewal; consider its responses to Japan in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, to Germany in the 1940s, and to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While past victories hardly preordain present successes, they nod to a latent US capacity for strategic mobilization. And while America’s competitive advantages are not immutable, they are formidable: perhaps the best demographic outlook of all major powers, buoyed by immigration; a reserve currency whose dominance has transcended numerous systemic crises and attendant predictions of erosion; vibrant systems of innovation and higher education; an ability to project military power globally; and a large network of alliances; to name just some. In brief, observes Boston University’s Joshua Shifrinson, while the United States may be in relative decline, “[i]t is not like the former Soviet Union and soon to fall into the dustbin of history; nor is it akin to ancient Rome with the Goths at the gates.”
China, meanwhile, has a number of competitive liabilities, some of which—a shrinking labor pool and an increasingly inefficient economic model, for example—are set to grow more pronounced in the coming decades. Its deepening repressiveness at home and increasingly assertive conduct abroad, meanwhile, are also likely to constrain its resurgence—independent of what course US foreign policy assumes. The “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy that China initiated last year—and seems intent on continuing—has been especially damaging to Beijing’s stature, compelling attitudes to sour not only in Washington, but also far beyond. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that majorities in fourteen countries with advanced economies have unfavorable views of China, with proportions in nine having reached their highest levels since the organization first began tracking that sentiment.
The quad, which had long seemed to be an underwhelming abstraction, has acquired newfound momentum. India’s shift is especially noticeable; though Delhi maintains its strategic autonomy, last year’s clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers have compelled it to align itself far more openly with Washington. Brussels, in addition, is taking a sterner disposition. While the aforementioned investment deal demonstrates the challenges of forging a transatlantic approach toward Beijing, the European Commission published a paper in early December, just a few weeks prior to the deal’s conclusion, in which it stated that since both are “open democratic societies and market economies, the EU and the US agree on the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.” The document noted that greater cooperation between Washington and Brussels is “essential in a world where authoritarian powers seek to subvert democracies, aggressive actors try to destabilise regions and institutions, and closed economies exploit the openness our own societies depend on.” In brief, as the Wall Street Journal explains, the “biggest challenge to [Xi’s] vision for China comes…from other parts of the world, in nations whose views of Beijing have dramatically changed in just a few years.”
At the start of 2021, then, China is both more central to the global economy and more isolated among advanced industrial democracies. Despite its growing outward confidence, that gap—between its economic heft and its diplomatic stature—is a significant competitive liability. The change in foreign policy that is expected to accompany the arrival of the Biden administration, meanwhile, suggests that China will confront more disciplined, concerted multilateral pushback across a range of dimensions, rather than the unilateral pressure of recent years that often caught close US allies and partners in its crosshairs.
Economic size and technological achievement are important competitive assets, but Beijing should not conclude that it will be able to emerge as the world’s dominant power on their basis alone. If it is unable to cultivate greater trust abroad and establish a countervailing order with broad appeal to major powers that are invested in the prevailing system, it will find it difficult to overtake the United States for global preeminence. The more likely scenario is that Washington and Beijing will have to cohabitate indefinitely, ensuring as best as possible that they can manage growing strategic tensions while cooperating on transnational challenges that affect their vital national interests and avoiding a wholesale disintegration of their trade and technological interdependence. While each one’s competitive strengths will enable it to endure as a central actor in world affairs, neither’s will be overwhelming enough to reduce the other to a marginal position. The Cold War ended with the dissolution of one of the competitors; neither the United States nor China should assume that such a fate will befall the other.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice and a fellow with the Modern War Institute.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Jean-Marc Ferré, UN Geneva