The concept of a “cold war” can only have meaning when the term’s implied polarity—a “hot war” between superpowers—exists as a real possibility. Until recently, no such thing was imaginable. That began to change in the years after 2008, when a critical mass of official and popular opinion began to weigh the likelihood of a hot war between the United States and China, and to consider what combination of deterrence, engagement, and concession on the part of the United States would be most likely to prevent such a war. The new outlook was driven first of all by economic developments. Contrary to widely held expectations, China managed to sustain average growth rates of nearly 10 percent of GDP per year for forty straight years, with no meaningful change in its political system, a record unparalleled in the history of the world. By the mid-2010s China had successfully weathered the global financial crisis to become the essential manufacturing hub of the world economy. Its economy was on track to overtake the U.S. economy in size. And it had begun turning its economic heft into diplomatic and military might.
On the left there is a strong impulse to argue that there is no intrinsic reason why a powerful China and a powerful United States need be in conflict with each other. I am not so confident. For well over a century, U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia has been dedicated to preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon, be it Japan, the Soviet Union, or China. The Chinese government would like to weaken U.S. power in the region, for the sake of its own security and its ability to project power more broadly. While many serious analysts have argued that the United States did not have fundamental national interests at stake in Afghanistan, I am not aware of any who would say the same about Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. With respect to Taiwan, advocates of a policy of restraint argue that the United States should maintain its historic posture of “strategic ambiguity”—not announcing that the United States will defend Taiwan militarily if China tries to resolve its cross-strait disputes by force, but not ruling it out either. Whether U.S. interest in Taiwan is framed in realist, economic terms (the importance of Taiwan as a producer of semiconductors, for example) or in values-based terms (the need to defend Taiwan’s democratic system from China’s authoritarianism), few argue that the United States has no stake in the future course of relations between Taiwan and China.
If the conflicts of interest are real, and the stakes are felt to be high enough, then war is a real possibility, and our foreign policy must be oriented toward avoiding it. Nuclear war is every bit as much of a threat to human civilization today as it was in 1962. And the closer we are to war, the more difficult it will be for the United States and China to constructively engage with each other to address other existential challenges, like climate change, that require leadership and cooperation from both countries.
Under intense security competition, a form of institutionalized paranoia becomes basically rational. When two powers are closely matched, small shifts in economic, military, diplomatic, or technological strength can tip the overall balance of power, perhaps irrevocably. A surprise move that shifts the balance in one country’s favor, or a belief that the continuation of present trends will lock in its ascendancy, makes it rational for the other power to take measures to head off such a change. This is part of how great-power wars start.
For the United States, one possible approach to the threat of a rising China would be to make itself so powerful that challenging it would be too risky. Some people within Biden’s inner circle have proposed such a strategy. But if containing China was ever possible, the economic and political costs of doing so have grown and gone beyond what the United States would ever choose to bear. There will be coexistence, or there will be carnage.
The escalating tensions of the past several years are cause for great concern. Since the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” the United States has signaled that China is its top foreign policy priority. Trump’s National Security Strategy, released in 2017, proclaimed a new era of “great power competition” and raised the stakes further. If the Trump administration had any thought of separating economic from security competition, its decision to pressure allies to reject contracts with the Chinese tech company Huawei on national security grounds, and to deputize Canada to detain Huawei’s chief financial officer for bank fraud in connection with U.S. sanctions against Iran, surely obliterated any remaining distinction. The United States has dramatically increased security cooperation with partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, most notably through the AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) program. China, meanwhile, has brutally suppressed political and press freedom in Hong Kong and undertaken threatening military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The COVID-19 pandemic might have been an opportunity for extraordinary international cooperation but has instead exacerbated tensions.
Within both countries, there are powerful interests and constituencies that feel they have something to gain from a more intensified rivalry, as well as powerful interests and constituencies that feel they have more to lose. Nationalism, of course, strengthens and is strengthened by great-power rivalry. It engenders a significant level of risk for interests and political actors who pursue strategies of reducing rather than inflaming international tensions.
The challenge for the left is to recognize the reality of security competition without being sucked into the vortex of threat inflation. We cannot allow our preference for democratic over authoritarian political systems to cause us to forget the grave harms that U.S. militarism has inflicted on the world (and on the United States). It is a delicate balance, and to maintain it we need to limit the discussion of war to those areas where intractable conflicts of interest really exist. By the same token, it will be critical to identify the places where the United States and China have genuine interests in common.
One example of these dynamics can be seen in the U.S. response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In their coverage of the project, Western journalists frequently insinuate that China is engaged in “debt-trap diplomacy,” wherein state-owned banks make loans to poor countries that they expect to sour and then use default as a pretext to seize assets of economic and strategic value. A sober look at the evidence suggests that China, while undoubtedly sitting on a pile of bad debts, has functioned more like U.S. commercial banks did during default waves in the 1980s—not giving nearly enough debt relief, but not using the threat of coercion to seize strategic assets either. If the United States is interested in decreasing the likelihood of conflict with China, it could treat China’s apparent restraint as a basis for constructive engagement. It could work to forge frameworks for international lending that recognize the rights of borrowing countries and foster the large-scale investment needed to mitigate climate change. Such frameworks would leave ample room for U.S. participation in overseas lending while also diminishing the risk of foreign loans exploding into diplomatic, or even military, crises. Instead, fearing lost markets and lost influence, in 2019 the United States launched its own geo-economic bank, which is empowered to make explicitly political demands on borrowers, including pledges to exclude Huawei from their telecommunications infrastructure. In this area and elsewhere, American officialdom seems more interested in developing the capacities for pitched rivalry than in pursuing opportunities for cooperation.
Work on mutual interests can signal that the United States doesn’t want war and create more favorable conditions for diplomacy on the difficult questions. There are numerous barriers to such de-escalatory action. But the fact that so few efforts are being made speaks to the U.S. elite’s continuing refusal to reckon with the reality of coexistence—and the need to prioritize peace above all else.
Ted Fertik holds a PhD in history from Yale University. He is a senior strategist at the Grassroots Power Project and the Working Families Party.