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A Battle of Wills: The Beginning of the Sino-American Cold War

Since the Shanghai Communique in 1972, U.S.-Sino relations have slowly warmed. Between 1980 and 2004, U.S.-China trade rose from $5 billion to $231 billion. The U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000 paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization. The neoliberal idea of complex interdependence leading to peace seemed to be working. Now, however, cooperation appears to be a thing of the past. Instead, economic competition and ideological conflict rage between the two countries. The United States “pivot” to Asia began under President Obama’s administration. Following this, President Trump waged his trade war against China, which  President Biden has continued through adding additional sanctions and pursuing talks with regional allies. The United States and China are economically, and increasingly militarily and ideologically, opposed and headed into a cold war.

What is cold war? The most famous example is the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The period between 1947 and 1962 was characterized by constant military threats, economic exclusion, and ideological opposition— the severest antagonism short of direct military conflict. While the seventies and eighties saw a period of détente, the United States and the Soviet Union were by no means at peace. A lessening or absence of conflict does not mean peace; rather, peace conveys a level of cooperation. In the case of the United States and China, confrontation and competition have increasingly replaced any semblance of cooperation. Cold war, then, is an open rivalry between two states short of direct military conflict and largely absent of cooperation.


Economic Competition

The U.S.-China rivalry today primarily manifests itself economically. China became the largest United States foreign creditor in 2008 and surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. Concerns about the United States’ trade deficit arose under President Obama’s administration, and the United States pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership to counter China’s growing economic power. President Trump’s trade war placed the United States’ economic competition with China in the national and international limelight. Shifting away from a focus on international free trade rights, the United States instead emphasized national advantage and security. By May 2019, the Trump Administration had placed a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, prompting the Chinese government to respond in kind. The Trump Administration also blacklisted many Chinese companies, most notably Huawei, over concerns of national security and human rights.

The Biden Administration has continued the U.S.-China trade war. Despite criticizing President Trump’s tariff against China, President Biden has so far left Trump-era tariffs intact. President Biden has also expanded the Trump-era ban on American investment into Chinese firms, most notably Huawei, and pursued sanctions against China for the persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. The United States Senate has passed both the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 and the Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 in direct competition with China. Additionally, the Senate has passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act intended to ban all goods imported from China’s Xinjiang region. Internationally, the G7 condemned China’s trade practices and persecution of the Uyghurs.


Military Competition

Moreover, President Biden has moved beyond his predecessors into direct military competition with China. Of course, the “pivot” to Asia had already begun under the Obama Administration, and the Trump Administration actively conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The Biden Administration, however, has sought out economic and military allies against China. In March 2021, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment. In April 2021, the United States and Japan pledged to maintain “the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait” and to cooperate in technological innovation. In June 2021, the day after the G7 condemned China, NATO asserted that China’s “asserted ambitions and assertive behavior presented challenges to the rules-based international order.” Most recently, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announced the AUKUS agreement in September 2021. This pact aims at creating an Australian nuclear submarine force, a dangerous development for Chinese shipping in case of war.


Chinese Reaction

China views the United States and the West as trying to put down a potential competitor and equal. Since 2012, the Chinese government has grown more assertive of its international status as a great power, with President Xi Jinping advancing a “new mode of relations between great powers” that challenges United States unilateralism. According to Chen Yixin, secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, “The rise of China is a major variable…the rise of the East and decline of the West has become a trend.” Most Chinese experts blame America’s anxiety about its relative decline for its attempts to constrain China’s rise. The Chinese government retaliated against American and European sanctions in a one-for-on manner, adopting the United States’ playbook. In addition, China has sought to increase its economic self-sufficiency and foreign influence while managing international aggression. To combat American competition, it is seeking closer economic relations with its Asian neighbors in the RCEP and ASEAN, the Russian Federation, and the European Union.


Ideological Competition

China has abandoned its previous foreign policy of restraint to instead promote its interest abroad and engage in a sharp ideological battle with the West. American and European sanctions against China’s internal persecution of the Uyghurs and its authoritarian rule of Hong Kong have only fueled further persecution and violence. The Chinese government has vigorously repressed dissent within the country. Externally, China has condemned the United States and Europe for interfering with its internal affairs. It has launched a campaign calling for national self-determination and international non-intervention, advocating for the right of countries to choose their own political regimes, whether democratic or authoritarian. China portrays its authoritarian regime as a superior alternative to Western democratic regimes, citing its economic growth and superior handling of the Covid pandemic. To this end, China has economically punished its critics, given aid to developing countries, and promoted international policies more accommodating of authoritarian government.

The United States has placed itself squarely opposite China in this ideological contest. Against China’s oppression, the United States preaches the importance of human rights. Against China’s protectionism, the United States tells of the equity of free trade. Against China’s authoritarianism, the United States extols the virtues of democracy. In short, the United States seeks to preserve an international order molded in its image: democratic, liberal, and free. It denounces China’s actions as detrimental to the international order, injurious to American interests, and fundamentally unjust. Where the United States had always treated China with goodwill and had even “rebuilt China,” the Chinese government responded with subterfuge and aggression. Not only has China been irresponsible within its borders, but it has also spread its ideology and influence into other countries—even the United States. These tenants are the spirit of the Trump Administration and largely that of the Biden Administration.

It is this ideological battle between the democratic West and the authoritarian East that drives the United States and China towards a cold war. The ideological conflict has crystalized their economic and political rivalry, for what started as economic competition is well on its way to devolving into an existential battle between two ways of life, just like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. The United States and China have designated each other their chief rivals. Like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the U.S.-Sino conflict has rejected cooperation as an option, leaving only one option for peace: coercion. In Clausewitzian terms, they have entered a battle of wills: war. The solution for this rising conflict is the same as for its predecessor: détente. It is unlikely, however, that the two countries will sincerely seek cooperation and be willing to make compromises in the near future. In the 1970s, it took the emergence of a third party, China, to prompt détente between the United States and Russia. It remains to be seen what the third factor could induce a return to cooperation and peace between the United States and China.


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