Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Now Officially Wants New Cold War With China


Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China. Hudson Institute

Recently, Vice President Pence unveiled a litany of concerns with China, ranging from alleged Chinese interference in U.S. elections, to continued trade frictions, to persecution of minority religious groups within China, to cyber concerns, to provocative military encounters in the South China Sea.  Whichever refrain is used, “The gauntlet has been thrown down.” (medieval) or “The Rubicon has been crossed.” (ancient), there is no turning back from this point in U.S.-China strategic relations. Many in China will simply view Pence’s speech as mere confirmation of the U.S.’s desire to safeguard its global hegemony by containing China outright through a new Cold War. Unfortunately, this containment will also extend to the wisdom and sagacity of the American people.

Yet More Political Interference?

Pence’s sermon was short on actual U.S. policy towards China, much less strategy. Perhaps the highlights were allegations of Chinese interference in U.S. elections. Really? Where have we seen this before? Placing a paid advertisement in a local newspaper outlining how a U.S.-China trade war will be detrimental to all parties concerned (similar to placements by U.S. allies) does not constitute a “whole-of-government” approach by China to influence U.S. elections a month, two years, or even twenty years from now. If China, a country recognized globally for its historical strategic culture, were to truly adopt a “whole-of-government” approach on anything, the results would not be so mediocre as a paid advertisement in a local newspaper.

Additionally, the U.S. can not claim Russian (and now Chinese) interference in U.S. domestic political affairs while at the same time frowning upon the diplomatic choices of sovereign Latin American states within its own backyard, namely to recognize Beijing and not Taipei as the sole legitimate government of China. This hypocrisy is even more pronounced given that the U.S. is now criticizing others for the very same decision that it made itself years ago.

A Heart Attack Isn’t That Bad

Publicly, China has stated that it is open to further talks with the U.S. to resolve the trade dispute. However, realistically (and certainly according to more hard-line elements within China) China really has zero incentive to negotiate with the U.S. right now on any one issue since it knows that the U.S. really has problems with China on a myriad number of other issues. Seeming progress on any one issue will be immediately torpedoed due to perceived intransigence by China on the other issues. This is a “whole-of-issue” approach by the U.S., a.k.a., containment.

Forcing states to choose between competing trade agreements was a contributing factor in the Ukraine Crisis, with the choice being laid out for Ukraine as either EU membership or EEU membership, but not both. Instead of figuring out a way for the U.S.’ new BUILD initiative to work alongside China’s BRI to satisfy the infrastructure demands of the Indo-Pacific region, the stage is set for a new Cold War here as well. Lost in the current allegations of BRI projects being a form of “debt diplomacy” are the previous insistent demands by the U.S. that China become a “responsible stakeholder” and help shoulder the burden of global economic stability and growth.

The global economy is a highly complex, fluid, and interdependent system, much like the human body. Even at this stage of medical development, no doctor can truly claim to know exactly how the human body works. The only certain effect of any disruptions to the heart of this international trading system (the Asia-Pacific, not North America) is that it will be both wide-reaching and catastrophic. Yes, a heart attack is survivable in theory. That doesn’t mean that one should knowingly take actions to increase the risk of having one.

“Unsafe, unprofessional, and aggressive”

Deliberate conflation of military versus civilian “freedom of navigation” maneuvers aside, it’s plainly not in China’s interests to disrupt civilian trade flows in the South China Sea, as the U.S. claims. Any disruption here would hamper China’s own economic growth, thereby endangering the true source of legitimacy China’s government has with its own people. Whether by Chinese design or not, any attack on China will, in effect, be an attack on the entire global economy. China’s not going to back down, just like the DPRK didn’t back down over its missile development amidst regional U.S. military exercises.

The U.S. has, on numerous occasions, stated its intent to “Fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand.” The problem here is that the U.S. is not the only state with legitimate national interests and the Russian s-400 system illustrates this vividly. Hypocrisy over sanctioning China for the purchase of this system, but not India, is self-evident. At least India has not been sanctioned yet, as the deal was just only recently finalized.

India has a long tradition of non-alignment, whether it’s called strategic autonomy or having a multi-vectored foreign policy, and will pursue its interests as a great power as it sees fit, especially within its own region. Right now, it’s in its interests to hedge against China and this latest weapons acquisition is symbolic of that desire. Moreover, it’s in both the U.S.’ and Russia’s national interests to have India serve in a balancing capacity against China in the eventuality of worsened (or in the U.S.’ case, much worsened) relations with China. The point is that states, especially great powers, are going to have their own proprietary interests whether the U.S. recognizes them as legitimate or not. This rule is also going to apply whether a state is a democracy or not.

“Love me when I’m gone.”

Americans are presently being conditioned (manipulated) to accept a long-term deterioration in U.S.-Chinese ties, with increasing concordant political, economic, and military risks as well. However, three modern examples illustrate why this may not be the best course of action.

The U.S. has only ever come to blows with China in the Korean War. Here, the U.S. miscalculated and underestimated Chinese resolve when it came to their territorial integrity, literally right on their border. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world was witness to how an outside superpower military presence interfered with a local superpower’s regional hegemony. Even in this instance only sound judgment, prudence, and coolheadedness helped avert nuclear catastrophe.

Granted, Iraq is only a regional power, not a global superpower like China or the Former Soviet Union. Additionally, Iraq’s neighborhood hasn’t been the locus of global economic activity for about two thousand years, whereas the Asia-Pacific (with China at its core) is poised to hold this spot not only now, but for the foreseeable future as well. However, the U.S. is still dealing with the unintended consequences of The Iraq War, namely the formation of ISIS  and the relative strengthening of Iraq’s rival, Iran. What, pray tell, might be the unintended consequences of the new Cold War with China?

Cue the music video.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.