Oct 19, 2021 - World

The new cold war panic

Illustration of the American and Chinese flags frozen in an ice cube.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world has seen a power struggle between nuclear powers before, and has seen those countries inch closer to military conflict. But it's never before seen a cold war between two countries as interconnected — with each other and with the rest of the globe — as the U.S. and China.

Why it matters: Escalating antagonism between the world's two superpowers is likely to hinder global cooperation to fight climate change, divert resources to costly arms and tech races, complicate diplomacy for U.S. allies, and victimize Chinese and American citizens living in each other's countries.

The big picture: Experts have long debated whether a "cold war" is the right way to think about the rivalry between the U.S. and China.

  • President Biden's top aides reject that framing as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," arguing that it should be possible for the two superpowers to "compartmentalize" on issues of mutual interest, The New York Times' David Sanger reports.
  • But so far, the Chinese have shown no interest in any such arrangement.

Driving the news: A report this weekend that China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile immediately drew comparisons to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, which raised alarms that the U.S. was falling behind in a technology race.

Yes, but: "This is not a Sputnik moment," Joshua Pollack, a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation, told Axios. "The point about Sputnik is that the Soviets had beaten us to the punch, they put the first satellite up. ... Weapons payload aside, this is old hat for the United States."

Context: The missile launch is only the latest in a series of major headlines shaking the foundations of the U.S.-China status quo.

  • Satellite images recently showed hundreds of new nuclear missile silos in western China.
  • Recent months have seen a dramatic spike in Chinese incursions near Taiwanese air space.
  • In September, the U.S., U.K., and Australia announced a new security pact, referred to as AUKUS, aimed at countering China in part through the transfer of U.S. nuclear submarine technology to Australia.
  • Even NATO, the quintessential Cold War-era alliance, is expanding its focus to include Beijing.

Between the lines: Although the parallels to the Cold War are easy to draw, the world is a very different place now than it was in the 1950s — in ways that have direct implications for the nature of this competition and the people caught in the middle.

  • China is the world's top trading partner, whereas the Soviet Union implemented an economic embargo, blockading itself from trade with nations outside the Soviet bloc.
  • The U.S. and China have close economic, educational, and people-to-people ties. There are 5.4 million people of Chinese heritage in the U.S.
  • "The most important element of [U.S.-China] competition globally is economics and economic capabilities, and not military power and military capabilities, which makes it different from the Cold War," M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at MIT, told Axios.

There's one point of broad agreement, though — just about nobody wants another cold war.

  • Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass warned last year that adopting a cold war lens would mean tensions with China would become "the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy," which would in his view be a "major strategic error."
  • Biden said at the United Nations in September, "We are not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs."
  • Beijing regularly accuses the U.S. of harboring a "Cold War mentality," a claim it made most recently after the launch of AUKUS.

The bottom line: The U.S.-China relationship has deteriorated significantly over the past five years, but we're not yet doomed to repeat the past.

Go deeper: The "new Cold War" started in Beijing

Go deeper