In an attempt to get Washington and Beijing back to cordiality, President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping recently met (virtually) for over three hours to clarify their positions and discuss various issues that have divided the two superpowers. Bilateral relations have soured over the prior Trump Presidency and the recent attempted decoupling of many defense-adjacent industries from integration with their Chinese counterparts.
While the surprise declaration at the recent Glasgow Climate Change Conference reaffirming the U.S. and China’s commitment to cooperation on environmental concerns shows promise, the enduring impasse over the issue of Taiwan and the South China Sea remains a powder keg for conflict. Many in the Beltway advocate abandoning Washington’s long-held “Strategic Ambiguity” and urge the marshaling of a grand alliance to contain Chinese objectives in Asia. Amid the prevailing Manichaen mindset among the Blob in Washington, a constant inclination is to treat the rise of this new and potentially dangerous revisionist power like a new Soviet Union.
This would be an error, for it fundamentally mischaracterizes the present geopolitical position of the United States and China— casting it as an absolute binary rather than as two leading powers in a more ambiguous and dynamic multi-polar world.
The Cold War: A Look Back
The Cold War Era was defined by the two largest victors of World War II, powers with no peers in global influence, starkly dividing the world along lines of influence and ideology. This occurred after a shattering worldwide conflict that had ravaged the other regional powers, decimated rival countries, and dismantled old colonial empires, proliferating many unstable and newborn states over which to compete. In 1945, the United States boasted nearly half of global industrial output, and by 1960 the American economy had grown to an astonishing 40% of global GDP. By comparison, in 2019, the U.S. economy’s share of the world’s economic output was down to 24%—this before the Pandemic. China, on the other hand, has come of age in a world of far more stable, developed, and secure states.
Furthermore, the Chinese leadership has shown no signs of waging ideological expansion worldwide, confining its ambitions to growing its economic power and not seeking either allies or rivals based off of the domestic political leanings of the country in question. As Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center Adam Webb recently stated, “China’s rise is already embedded in a cosmopolitan order, just not necessarily a liberal one.”
A “New Cold War” is not a viable strategic posture for the present day. A recent overview of Sino-American relations by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy that gathered the opinions of thirteen different China experts found the application of America’s Cold War style deterrence and containment strategy to its much more complex and multifaceted relationship with China to be detrimental to U.S. national interest in the medium to long term. As former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Chas Freeman stated, “The operative contest between China and America is not between competing political ideals, but between the two countries’ abilities to exercise wealth and power, maintain domestic tranquility, and inspire emulation.” The Biden Administration’s mixed signals on just what kind of relationship it wants with its most potent challenger, as well as the potential for increased Chinese hawkishness towards their maritime interests, implies a more ad hoc definition of what the core disputes are for each power.
This implies that a Cold War posture of full securitization and projection of bipolarity onto the international system is at least in part due to the dominant psychological drivers and strategic cultures in Beijing and Washington inflating the threat perception. Allowing such cognitive biases & securitized mindsets to dictate the terms of Sino-American relations would be unwise, especially as the more robust states of Asia attempt to secure their own national interest and achieve a degree of strategic freedom between these two titans and often have no interest in being fully dependent on one power and/or fully opposed to the other. The countries of East Asia are thoroughly realist in their calculation, meaning they care little for expressed ideology and would rather formulate their strategies according to security calculus, self-interest, and balance of power concerns. While some may end up leaning more towards one power than the other, calculated ambiguity is likely the near future goal for third-party countries. In such an environment, attempts to create an ideological crusade are likely to fall flat and give the advantage to the rival power who does not indulge in such behavior.
Forcing an ideological straitjacket on what is most likely standard great power competition, especially on geo-economic grounds, would inhibit Washington’s strategic freedom and political imagination when it comes to diplomatic options while depleting its resources and possibly even alienating more neutrally-postured nations. It has become apparent that the Biden Administration is increasingly schizophrenic on China, building on the prior administration’s hawkish posture on the one hand and seeking more ‘constructive’ engagement on issues it believes important on the other. This approach is unproductive. America no longer has the position or the leverage to force rival powers to compliance without also taking account of their concerns and interests. In the 21st century rendition of great power politics that turns on ‘recognition’ & international respect, compromise and strategic empathy will be key parts of any resolution.
It is therefore vital at this critical juncture that Washington avoid turning a normal and manageable competition into an adversarial, existential struggle defined by insurmountable ideological conflict and Manichean binaries.
Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Dr. Mott is an international relations scholar of historical geopolitics and author of “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.”