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Making Sure the Next Cold War Never Happens

China and America seem destined to clash in the 21st century. But that doesn't mean they have to.

The United States has initiated a bitter trade war against the People’s Republic of China. It’s done so while also challenging the PRC’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and its treatment of Taiwan. There is growing talk of a new cold war, but this time against China.

That’s a fearsome thought: not that America couldn’t “win,” of course, whatever that means. But a protracted economic and political conflict would be costly and would make a military confrontation more likely.

The American-Chinese relationship has never been smooth. Vice President Mike Pence, addressing China’s rise, recently spun America’s early role in this bumpiness by claiming that Washington never took advantage of the Chinese empire’s weakness. In fact, the famous “Open Door” policy was intended to benefit American traders, not respect Chinese sovereignty. U.S. troops even helped suppress the Boxer Rebellion, which was directed against foreigners and the imperial court that tolerated their presence.

The communist revolution destroyed any hope of humane democratic reforms, but Washington’s refusal to talk with the PRC was still foolish. If the U.S. and Beijing had direct contact in 1950, they might have avoided clashing over Korea. Had the U.S. halted midway in North Korea and drawn a line from Pyongyang in the west to Wonsan in the east, Chinese intervention and two-and-a-half additional years of war might have been avoided.

Mao Tse-tung’s bloody radicalism and bizarre public threats made dialogue with America difficult. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations even considered preventive war when the PRC was developing nuclear weapons. However, Richard Nixon changed course, turning the PRC into a partner to confront the Soviet Union. With Mao’s death came the normalization of relations.

America’s great hope was that political democratization would follow economic liberalization. For a time that seemed possible. Although the killings in Tiananmen Square cemented Communist Party control, there remained room for the promotion of more liberal viewpoints. That, however, ended with Xi’s presidency. Vice President Mike Pence recently noted that previous administrations had hoped “that freedom in China would expand in all of its forms—not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, religious freedom—-the entire family of human rights. But that hope has gone unfulfilled.”

Indeed, Xi’s rule has become the great reversal. The PRC appears to be moving back to its totalitarian past.

Xi has eliminated presidential term limits. His “thought” is now enshrined in the constitution. He has broken the unwritten rule of not imprisoning those who ruled before him and discouraged anyone from voluntarily retiring in the future. His assault on corruption has conveniently targeted his internal adversaries. He has demonized Western thought, cracked down on liberal organizations, restricted academic cooperation with foreigners, established party cells in private companies, and tightened internet controls. His government is creating a system of “social credit” that restricts the liberty and mobility of anyone who fails to satisfy government behavioral standards. Religious liberty is under siege. The regime has established what amount to concentration camps—focused on re-education rather than murder—for masses of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Xi’s promise to speed economic reform has gone unfulfilled.

All of these are disappointing, even disheartening. But none threaten the U.S. and there is little Washington can do to change any of them. Sanctions are unlikely to persuade the regime to rethink policies that it believes essential to its political objectives.

However, private actors worldwide can take the lead in promoting greater information access to the Chinese, especially the young. I speak regularly to Chinese college students, and while they’re nationalistic, they nevertheless desire freedom. Few of them want to be ruled by a resurrected Mao. Breaching the Great Firewall, in particular, should become a public as well as private obligation.

There are also plenty of economic complaints against Beijing. The problem is not the trade deficit, an accounting fiction that aggregates private purchases and sales. (Money spent on imports shouldn’t be considered lost but delivering goods and services and returns as investment.) Rather, the PRC has used the West’s relatively greater economic liberty to its advantage.

Complained Pence:

“Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China. It also coordinates and sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations. Worst of all, Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology—including cutting-edge military blueprints.”

Yet other than the theft, the fault lies mostly with the West. American and other foreign firms may have paid too high a price for access to what they saw as bountiful new markets. But that is changing, as even many major domestic enterprises have soured on the PRC. Washington should consider Chinese investment in light of the deteriorating freedoms inside China. Beijing’s attempt to use foreign firms as tools of foreign policy—insisting that they treat Taiwan as a province of China even on their websites outside the PRC, for instance—demonstrates new dangers that result from Chinese ownership. Espionage must be combatted at all times.

Most serious is Beijing’s more aggressive stance abroad. China is pushing the 20-plus countries that still recognize Taiwan to shift to the PRC and tightening controls over Hong Kong. The latter, about which Washington can do little, should nonetheless serve as the famed “firebell in the night” about the PRC’s aggression and authoritarianism. As for Taipei, America’s best policy is to stay out of the recognition squabble—after all, Washington does not recognize the Republic of Taiwan—while maintaining arms sales to ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.

Yet Pence went much further, complaining:

“China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and Beijing has prioritized capabilities to erode America’s military advantages on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.”

This is true, but hardly surprising. Indeed, it describes the behavior of…the United States. Washington spends far more than its potential adversaries on its military. That spending isn’t for self-defense, but to dominate the globe, including along China’s border. Beijing’s response is the only logical one: to defend itself from the projection of American power.

The U.S. has legitimate interests in navigational freedom and the independence of allied states. But it cannot expect a rising great power to remain docile, even subservient, to Washington’s dictates. Moreover, Uncle Sam can ill afford the price of attempting to dominate every region against every coalition. China does not need a dozen carrier groups to counter Washington; merely the ability to sink U.S. carriers with missiles or subs. With deficits already at $1 trillion a year and bound to increase as entitlement spending rises, finances will constrain America’s military response to the PRC.

Rather than expect America’s armed forces to protect a region full of defense dependents, Washington should shift security responsibilities onto other states. India is increasingly involved in Southeast Asia. Japan is adjusting its post-World War II limitations on its military. Vietnam is looking for friends against Beijing. And an inter-Korean détente would reduce the PRC’s influence on the peninsula.

The PRC is likely to pose a major challenge to America. But Beijing’s future is not guaranteed: it may grow old before it grows rich, Xi may be on the summit and at the edge of the precipice simultaneously, and the Chinese Communist Party may succumb to a range of debilitating domestic challenges before it turns China into a superpower. Despite the messiness of our democracy, American remains resilient, flexible, and legitimate.

That allows Washington to be patient in dealing with the PRC. Treating China as an enemy risks turning it into one. Moreover, Beijing currently lacks the ideological ambitions and military capabilities of the Soviet Union; America is not engaged in a similarly long struggle with evil. The 21st century will turn out much better if the U.S. and China are able, on balance, to maintain a cooperative rather than a confrontational relationship.

Modern China is a great success: hundreds of millions of people have moved out of poverty and live freer, more fulfilling lives. However, the PRC’s development remains incomplete and is moving in disturbing directions. America should work to ensure that China’s future is prosperous, liberal, and, most important, peaceful.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.