Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech that many likened to a declaration of a Cold War against China. Gone, he said, was “the old paradigm of blind engagement” that had prevailed since the Nixon administration. “If we want to have a free 21st century,” he continued, “the free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”
Mr. Pompeo’s speech made plain that the relationship between the two superpowers had reached a nadir in recent months, strained by escalating rounds of diplomatic sanctions and retaliations over territory, intellectual property, trade, the coronavirus, allegations of espionage and the repression in Hong Kong, among other disputes. (China’s mass internment of Muslims in Xinjiang appears not to be playing much of a role.)
The combined effect of these hostile exchanges, The Times’s Edward Wong and Steven Lee Myers explain, could prove to be the Trump administration’s most important foreign policy legacy: “the entrenchment of a fundamental strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies.”
But what would such a confrontation actually look like? Here’s what people are saying about what might happen if ties between the countries continue to fray.
It will not look like the last Cold War
Looking backward to the Cold War obscures more than it illuminates about U.S.-China relations, Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner argue in The Washington Post. The original Cold War was defined by the opposition between NATO and Warsaw Pact members. Little economic activity took place between the two blocs, they note, and nonaligned countries in strategic regions were relatively few and far between. That is not the case today, as nations all over the world have strong security and economic ties to both the United States and China. As even Mr. Pompeo acknowledged in his speech last week, “China is deeply integrated into the global economy.”
The United States and China are also themselves much more intertwined than the United States and the Soviet Union ever were. Mario Del Pero, a professor of international history at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris (known as Sciences Po), writes in The Guardian that interaction between the two countries has been both a product and a driver of globalization: The United States relies on China to host its manufacturing plants and buy its debt, and China relies on the United States to soak up its exports and educate hundreds of thousands of university students. “Such interdependencies now define U.S.-Chinese relations and are revealing in how particular and determined these connections are,” he writes.
As a result, any conflict between China and the United States would be likely to be fought and resolved differently. As Mr. Del Pero notes, the threat of mutually assured destruction that animated the Cold War doesn’t loom as large over the current conflict. But at the same time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore argues in Foreign Affairs, China is a more sophisticated competitor than the Soviet Union was: “The Chinese economy possesses tremendous dynamism and increasingly advanced technology; it is far from being a Potemkin village or the tottering command economy that defined the Soviet Union in its final years. Any confrontation between these two great powers is unlikely to end as the Cold War did, in one country’s peaceful collapse.”
The costs of conflict
Because of how intertwined the Chinese and American economies are, decoupling them would be a very expensive affair, Nathaniel Taplin writes in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, Americans use iPhones and personal protective equipment produced in China, but they also attend universities that after decades of underinvestment are kept afloat by Chinese students who pay full tuition.
“If ‘decoupling’ proceeds, then much more federal funding for basic research — and for U.S. science and math education — may be needed to plug the gap,” Mr. Taplin writes. “That probably means higher taxes and a more welcoming immigration policy for foreign talent from India and other nations to offset a potential Chinese brain drain. Finally, American consumers need to be prepared to pay more for the luxury of a secure and diversified supply chain.”
The process of diversifying America’s supply chains would be long and difficult, writes Michael T. Klare, a professor emeritus of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College, in The Nation. While jobs currently done by workers in China could be moved to other low-cost manufacturing hubs like Mexico, Thailand or Vietnam, he predicts such a shift would take many years to accomplish. In the short run, he says, “the first consequence of an intensifying Cold War could be a weaker than expected recovery from the Covid-19 economic meltdown.”
A Cold War could easily turn hot
It’s not hard to imagine an economic conflict turning into a military one, Mr. Klare adds. As it is, American and Chinese warships regularly encounter each other in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, occasionally at perilously close distances. “As such incidents multiply and tensions increase,” he says, “the risk of a serious face-off involving loss of life on one or both sides is bound to grow, possibly providing the spark for a full-scale military confrontation.”
It’s not immediately clear which country would win such a face-off, the Times columnist Bret Stephens writes. The U.S. Navy, he says, has sunk into a degraded state, weakened by corruption and incompetency, while the Chinese Navy has grown by 55 percent in 15 years. “If the U.S. and the People’s Republic were to come to blows after some incident over some atoll in the South China Sea,” he asks, “are we confident we’d prevail?” It’s a question he says a Biden administration would also have to contend with: China’s expansionism in the South China Sea did not begin when Mr. Trump took office and it won’t end when he leaves.
A Cold War between China and the United States could jeopardize international cooperation on the issue where it is arguably most needed: climate change. As Christine Loh and Robert Gottlieb wrote in Time last year, the warming climate threatens crises of migration, water availability, food production and extreme weather, “creating insecurities that will grow each year and subsume all other existing security fears.” The United States and China are both vulnerable to these crises, they say, but as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, they also have a special responsibility to prevent them.
The best way to do so is through collaboration, not zero-sum competition, according to Rachel Esplin Odell, an international security fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. China is the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, as well as the world’s largest investor in renewable energy research and development. So if the goal is to deploy as much clean energy as quickly as possible, restricting access to Chinese markets would be counterproductive. Ms. Odell tweeted:
The best way to tackle that challenge is to engage in much bolder collaborative effort w/ China to invest in green technology & deep decarbonization to help the developing world to achieve prosperity in a way that preserves the environment & comprehensive human security.
— Rachel Esplin Odell (@resplinodell) July 27, 2020
Spencer Bokat-Lindell, a staff editor.