May 13, 2020 - World

The "new Cold War" started in Beijing

Photo illustration of Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump surrounded by stars

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images and Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

A growing number of experts are warning against what they call a "new Cold War" with China. But many Chinese Communist Party elites already view the rest of the world as a staging ground for competition between China and the United States.

The big picture: The current U.S. debate over China policy is essentially a response to the great power rivalry that China's leaders have already fully embraced.

When people warn of a new Cold War, they are typically referring to one or more of these possible scenarios:

  • Division of the world into competing spheres of influence
  • A sweeping economic embargo
  • A military build-up
  • At home, accusations of disloyalty and secret sympathies

What they're saying: Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, last week wrote that a new Cold War would mean "confronting China" becomes "the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy."

  • "This would be a major strategic error," wrote Haass. "It reflects an out-of-date mind-set that sees dealing with other major powers as America’s principal challenge."

Driving the news: The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. “Both governments are trying to profit domestically off the other's failures," Rachel Esplin Odell of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft told USA Today.

First things first — no one actually wants another Cold War.

  • China's leaders want to maintain the pre-Trump status quo, which for them means establishing dominance over key elements of the future global economy and society such as 5G and internet governance, and stamping out support for liberal democratic norms at home and undermining them abroad.
  • When Chinese government officials criticize what they explicitly call a "Cold War mentality" in the U.S., they aren't calling for an end to ideological competition or great power rivalry, but rather to U.S. attempts to stymie Beijing's plans.
  • China hawks in the U.S. aren't calling for a new Cold War either, but it's a risk they are willing to take in order to push back against an expansive authoritarian power.
  • As Senator Marco Rubio, a leading China hawk, told me in an interview for Axios on HBO, the relationship needs rebalancing but a new Cold War is "not the outcome we desire."

Background: The Chinese Communist Party has two different messages — one intended for the rest of the world, and one intended for party members who govern the country.

  • "If you read speeches that Xi Jinping would give at Davos, or at the Boao Forum, it would contain a lot more language about cooperation, mutual aid, and peaceful and respectful diplomacy between China and other countries, and China and the United States," Victor Shih, an associate professor of political economy at UC San Diego, told Axios.
  • "But if you look internally on foreign policy by Chinese leaders or Chinese experts and the government, those things tend to frame things as global competition between the U.S. and China."

That helps explain why U.S. experts who blame the U.S. for firing the opening salvos of a new Cold War have largely misread the Chinese Communist Party's intentions.

  • "China can best be understood as a regional power that seeks to reduce U.S. influence in its backyard and to increase its influence with its neighbors," wrote Haass.

What Xi really wants: In one key speech given to party members in 2017, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for China to become “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence" by the year 2035, and said that China is “moving closer to the center of the world stage."

  • Xi is interested in a different kind of political and economic dominance, without taking on a U.S.-style mantle of responsibility, such as serving as the world's policeman.
  • Xi's emphasis on creating a "community of shared future for humanity" with China at its center highlights these global ambitions. This can't happen if a powerful U.S. stands in China's way.
  • "The challenge Beijing represents is not to Washington’s status in Asia, but to the nature of the global order’s predominant values," Dan Tobin, a faculty member in China Studies at the National Intelligence University, wrote in congressional testimony on March 13.
  • "While this rivalry differs in many respects from the Cold War, one of the most important differences is that it is a competition to define the rules and norms that will govern an integrated, deeply connected world rather than a world divided into competing camps."

The bottom line: Some U.S. experts deny China's global ambitions, while others exaggerate its threat.

  • My thought bubble: Neither of these approaches are an effective response to the party's true intentions.

Go deeper: Democrats and Republicans have argued about China for 150 years

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