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US-China Relations: Can We Really Call It a “New Cold War”?

Published by IDSA on

In 2020, it’s not just COVID-19 that has been spreading…


…but also articles about a “new or second Cold War“ between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The latest ones were published on the websites of New York TimesBBCForeign PolicyVox– and the list goes on and on.
However, this analogy is nothing new. The first time I heard it was in April 2019, when Kiron Skinner- the Director of Policy Planning in the Trump administration at that time- made parallels between the era of the Cold War and today’s US-China relations in the framework of the Future Security Forum. She called for a new “X article”, albeit this time with the focus on China. This is in reference to when George F. Kennan (the creator of the Director of Policy Planning position) tried to analyze and explain the Soviet behavior in an article which he published under the name ‘Mr. X’ in the early stages of the Cold War. The same is needed to be done with China, Skinner argues, with a deeper and broader look into the motives of China’s behavior. Furthermore, she argued that China will be a long term threat and competitor to the US, mentioning the ideological gap between the two countries. She said they are working on a Trump-doctrine – which in that context, surrounded by references of the Cold War and Kennan, opened a possibility to associate it with the Truman-doctrine. To explain the archaism of her words she said that “…looking backward and looking for historical analogies is critical…” and expressed the need for an argument underneath the policies, which according to her do not exist yet.
The New “X Article”

Are drawing comparisons between US-China and the US-Soviet Union relations even possible? In response to Skinner’s statements, Odd Arne Westad wrote an article on this topic entitled ‘The Sources of Chinese Conduct’. At the beginning of the paper, he listed the similarities between the PRC and the Soviet Union, starting with Chinese propaganda (which describes the U.S. as an enemy and an obstacle in front of further development) and its similarities to the Soviet form of campaigning. The next point in the list is the centralization of power under one ruling party. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the centralization has become more enhanced- and the CCP grew more ambitious in offering a new model of development and building influence in its region as well as in further developing countries. We can also add to this list the fact that the People’s Republic of China is an empire- much like the USSR was- with many territories which originally were not populated by Han Chinese. The poor treatment and the ‘reeducation’ of ethnic minorities and political opposition in prison camps must also be mentioned here.
But the differences are outnumbering the similarities, according to Westad. The circumstances are changing- the world is not bipolar anymore, rather going in the direction of multipolarity. The Chinese society is market-oriented (and more similar to the American one than the soviet society ever was), the communist ideology is more like a label in terms of the everyday life of a Chinese citizen, thus it can be said that nationalism is the true unifying factor. The domestic situation in the U.S. is more fragmented and polarized than  it was ever in the time of the Cold War. Furthermore, there are stronger economic ties between the two countries than there were between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

He states that because of the mentioned differences there won’t be a new ‘Cold War’, rather it’s just a different kind of rivalry. China today just can’t be compared consequently with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, however, Westad does not stray entirely from the analogy, suggesting that Kennan’s strategic advice and realizations are still valid today, proposing solutions based on Kennan’s words, and even calling on a new version of containment.

It can be concluded based on this research that the parallel between the Soviet Union and today’s People’s Republic of China is not evident, there are as many differences as similarities, and according to Westad, China on the same base can be compared to a 1914 Germany. To put it simply, the reason for the renewal of the Cold War narrative cannot be linked through the inevitable similarities between the USSR and China.

China now is ‘more of a match’ for the U.S. than the Soviet Union was before. With its strong and growing economy, it has the capacity of becoming a leading power in its region in this century – but there are also ongoing debates whether we are entering a ‘Chinese century’ after the American one, and whether China will lead not just a region, but rather the world. There is one explicit debate about whether the 21st century belongs to China, marked with not smaller names than Dr. Henry Kissinger, Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, and David Li.

The rise of China causes anxiety in the American society, which is very visible even in just the titles of some contemporary books on the topic: ‘Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?’ from Graham T. Allison, a professor of Harvard; ‘Russia, China and the new Cold war against America’ written by Douglas Schoen (a political analyst, who was a scholar of Harvard) and Melik Kaylan.

A Possible Motivation

At the end of his paper, Westad writes about his hope that the threat which China exposes will be a unifying factor for the American community and if it will bring the domestic political life to a consensus. So, an evil threat from China can be in fact beneficial, according to this conclusion (and, as an anecdote, it worth mentioning that the majority of news reports about China in the American media are negative).
Thus, I would like to conclude this article with one question: Why would we want history to repeat itself?

*This article was written as a follow-up to Odd Arne Westad’s piece “The Sources of Chinese Conduct- Are Washington and Beijing Fighting a New Cold War?” published in Foreign Affairs Autumn 2019.


— Vivien Aranyi-Aszalos is a student of International Studies at ELTE, researching in the topics of citizenship and gender —