The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War

The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War
Remarks to the Asia American Forum

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University<
By video link from Washington, D.C., 25 September 2020

Washington has declared war on China.  The administration and its allies hope that the war will be “cold,” but have no strategy for keeping it so.  I find it noteworthy that the most belligerently anti-Chinese members of the current U.S. Senate are also its youngest.  They came to adulthood after the end of the post-World War II “Cold War” and have no experience of its anxieties.  They appear to take its sudden end as predestined – something that was so inevitably right ideologically that it can and should be taken for granted.  Their military experience, if any, has been in the contemporary equivalent of the 19th century’s Indian Wars – combat with gun-toting farmers with no air forces, air defenses, navies, guided missiles, or nuclear weapons with which to answer U.S. hostility.  To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc’s riff on Britain’s hubris in its colonial wars:

“Whatever happens, we have got
Close air support and they have not.”

The Cold War was radically different from this.  It was a global struggle between two competing ideological blocs and nuclear-armed power centers capable of destroying not just each other but all life on the planet except maybe the cockroaches.  It began as a series of squabbles over the spoils of a worldwide war.  Each side strove to consolidate spheres of politico-military and economic influence and deny the other access to them.  But each learned to avoid confrontations that might lead to armed combat directly with the other.  Each limited itself to proxy wars aimed at sustaining or imposing its ideology somewhere not in the grip of the other.  Each sought to minimize and contain interaction with the other.  That was not difficult, given the utter lack of interdependence between the two and the blocs of nations they formally and informally commanded.

The struggle we Americans have now initiated with China has none of these characteristics.  To analogize it to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy.  More important, it is profoundly misleading and delusional.  The Sino-American split is not the sequel to a bloody world war.  However politically convenient it may be for Americans to cast antagonism to China in all-encompassing Manichean terms, this is a contest born of contending national self-images and ambitions, not ideologies.  The struggle with China on which Americans have embarked is a bilateral contest in which others may or may not choose to take sides, not one between two committed blocs of nations.  China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.

Emulating China’s autocracy by closing America to foreign goods, services, people, and ideas, as the United States is now doing, is self-defeating.  Modeling China policy on Ronald Reagan’s treatment of the USSR before he met Mikhail Gorbachev, as Secretary of State Pompeo has done, is the path to receipt of a national “Darwin award.”  The U.S. contention with a resurgent China cannot be conducted in the same manner as the Cold War.  It will not end, as the Cold War did, with the voluntary resignation of an ideologically disillusioned and exhausted adversary.

Before I discuss China and how our contest with it is likely to proceed, it may be useful to spend a minute or two on what China is not.

In Chinese literature, there is a beast called a 四不像that is satirically defined by the “four things it ain’t.”  The head and face of a “four ain’t[1]” is slender like a horse, but it ain’t a horse.  Its horns are like a deer’s, but different.  Its neck is like a camel’s, but it is no camel.  Its tail is like a donkey’s, but it’s not an ass.  The point is that describing a “four ain’t” by reference to previously encountered animals it does not resemble is worse than no help at all in understanding and dealing with it.

China is the “four ain’t” of today’s geopolitics.  It is ruled by a “Communist Party” but is an overachieving participant in global capitalism, committed to free trade, expanded foreign investment, and a market economy guided by industrial policy, not central planning.  China is armed with nuclear weapons, but it has sized and configured its arsenal for a retaliatory response to an attack on it by other nuclear powers, not for a first strike, which it has abjured and is not equipped to conduct.  China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.  China is once again the immovable economic and cultural center of its native region – where the United States has for seventy-five years been the resident overlord – but China seeks no “allies” and has no political satrapies or military dependencies.

Crucially, China is not the Soviet Union:

  • China has no messianic ideology to export. Its appeal derives from its performance, not its ideas.  It is happy to be emulated, but justly charged with callous indifference to how foreign societies govern themselves.
  • China is not engaged in regime change operations to create an ideological sphere of influence. It seeks to prevent the overthrow of its own authoritarian system of governance but does not oppose democracy or promote authoritarianism abroad.  Where tested, as in Korea, it often has a better relationship with democracies than with their undemocratic opponents.
  • China’s relationships with foreign nations are transactional rather than sentimental. It has no “satellites,” “allies,” or entente partners to divert its attention from its own defense.  Beijing has no ideological soul mates, committed followers, or dedicated sycophants abroad.
  • China’s economy dwarfs that of the USSR. It accounts for 30 percent of global manufacturing and continues to grow.  China has an economy that is almost one-third larger than that of the United States in purchasing power terms and that is rapidly approaching parity at nominal exchange rates.
  • China is now the largest consumer market on the planet and the biggest trading partner of three-fourths of the world’s other economies. It is fully integrated into the global capitalist system and cannot be walled off from it.
  • China already possesses one-fourth of the world’s scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematics workforce. It is steadily increasing its ascendancy.
  • China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
  • China spends two percent or less of GDP on its military vs. the estimated 9 – 15 percent of the USSR and the current 7.9 percent spent by the United States.[2] Unlike the USSR, if pushed to do so, China has the capacity to more than match any U.S. military spending increases.
  • Despite much wishful thinking on the part of its detractors, premising a policy on China’s collapse from systemic defects, as George Kennan shrewdly did in the case of the USSR in 1947, is – on the evidence – delusional.
  • China has not built a nuclear arsenal to match that of either the United States or Russia. It has instead adopted a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons backed by a modest force de frappe that can conduct a limited but devastating retaliatory counterstrike to any foreign nuclear attack on it.
  • There are no U.S. arms control agreements, exchanges of information, understandings on mutual restraint, or escalation control mechanisms between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces as there were with the USSR
  • American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950.  Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
  • The United States backs challenges to China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and islets in its near seas. By contrast, despite rhetorical opposition to its incorporation of the three Baltic states, America never actively contested the USSR’s territorial integrity.
  • The armed forces of the United States aggressively patrol China’s shorelines and test its defenses, as they did those of the Soviet Union. But, so far, unlike the USSR, China has not reciprocated.

Equally important, the United States of the 2020s is not the America of the early Cold War.

  • As the Cold War began, the United States produced one-half or more of the world’s manufactures. It now makes about one-sixth.
  • For the first time in American history, foreigners do not envy American freedoms. Once almost-universal admiration for the United States has been overwritten by repeated displays of racism, gun violence, political venality, xenophobia, and – most recently – executive incompetence and legislative default in the face of national challenges.  No one abroad now seeks to emulate the U.S. political system or believes that the United States illustrates the possibilities of democracy.
  • During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.  America’s international followership is greatly diminished and its capacity to organize coalitions that integrate lesser powers in support of common objectives has atrophied.
  • Legacy U.S. alliances formed to contain the USSR have little relevance to American contention with China:
    • US-European alliances like NATO are withering. Though cautious about China, Europeans do not and will not support an effort to “contain” it.
    • No Asian security partner of the United States wants to choose between America and China.[3] U.S. “alliances” in Asia embody U.S. undertakings to protect partners rather than commitments by them to come to America’s aid.  Such dependent relationships cannot be repurposed to form a coalition to counter China.
  • The United States is isolated on a widening list of issues of importance to other countries. It has withdrawn or excluded itself from a growing number of multilateral instruments of global and regional governance and is no longer able to lead the international community as it once did.
  • Americans have repeatedly declined to recapitalize or cooperate in reforming international financial institutions to meet new global and regional investment requirements. This has led China, India, and other rising powers to create supplementary lenders like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank.  The United States has chosen to have no voice in these and continues inadvertently to stimulate the creation of still more institutions that can act without reference to American interests or views.
  • Since 1950, the Taiwan issue has been a casus belli between the United States and China. But U.S. allies or security partners see it as a fight among Chinese to be managed rather than joined.  If the U.S. mismanages the Taiwan issue, as it now appears to be doing, it will have no overt allies in the resulting war.
  • No claimant against China in the South China Sea is prepared to join the U.S. in naval conflict with China.
  • U.S. foreign policy is now as partisan as domestic policy. It is often driven by special rather than national interests and is unrealistic, strategically incoherent, divisive, and fickle.
  • Partisan oligopolies have swallowed independent media in the United States and reduced the thousands of U.S. correspondents once reporting on international affairs to mere dozens. U.S. corporate media now treat the news as an entertainment-based cost center and consumer product rather than as a necessary public service or civic duty.  These developments and the politicization of the U.S. intelligence community diminish and distort American situational awareness, helping spurious narratives to overwrite facts.

In short, this time is different.  Sino-American relations have a history and dynamic that do not conform to those of the US-Soviet contest.  If you have seen one “communist,” you have not seen them all.  And the United States is much less well equipped to inspire and lead opposition to China than it was to the USSR.

The US-China contention is far broader than that of the Cold War, in part because China, unlike the determinedly autarkic USSR, is part of the same global society as the United States.   The battlefields include global governance, geoeconomics, trade, investment, finance, currency usage, supply chain management, technology standards and systems, and scientific collaboration, in addition to the geopolitical and military domains in which the Cold War played out.  Short of nuclear war, the struggle the United States has begun with China may not be existential, as the Cold War was, but it cannot avoid being hugely consequential.

Four years ago, the U.S. unilaterally decided that geopolitics are inherently driven by great power military rivalry that precludes cooperation.   The policies derived from this militaristic reconceptualization of international relations are generating a series of zero-sum games between adversaries seemingly as interested in hurting each other as they are in raising their own status.  The newly pugnacious U.S. stance legitimizes xenophobia and justifies bilateral approaches to foreign relations that don’t just ignore issues like global terrorism, pandemic diseases, climate change, migration, nuclear proliferation, or regional tensions but actually cripple the global governance and international coordination needed to tackle them.  The United States is going out of its way to demonstrate its indifference to the interests and sensibilities of its past and potential partners.  It is withdrawing from international organizations it can no longer dominate.  These actions amount to unilateral diplomatic disarmament and the creation of politico-economic vacuums for others – not just China – to fill.

Future historians will puzzle over why Americans have chosen to dismantle and discard the connections and capacities – other than military prowess – that long enabled the United States to direct the trend of events in most global and regional arenas.  When they unravel this mystery, they will also need to explain the simultaneous collapse of the separation of powers structure on which the American republic was founded and on which its liberties were built.  The checks and balances that made America uniquely resilient are now on life support.  A legislative branch that refuses to take a stand on the issues entrusted to it by the plain text of the U.S. Constitution has been sidelined by an increasingly despotic and bellicose presidency.  The American judiciary, once the custodian of constitutional rectitude, is now selected and appointed by reference to political rather than legal criteria.  The result is governance with declining legitimacy at home and next to no appeal abroad.

Fortunately for post-constitutional America, China’s political system, despite the stability and prosperity it has fostered, has even less appeal beyond China’s borders than the degenerate and debased U.S. “model” now does.   Both China and the United States are now repelling other nations rather than attracting them.  If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages.  But politics and armed conflict are not the central elements in the Sino-American confrontation.  And the zero-sum games in other competitive arenas do not look promising for America.

After World War II, the United States made the rules.  American statesmen crafted a world order that expressed American ideals and served American interests.  In the post-Cold War period Washington began to contract its commitments and to disengage from the global institutions and norms it had sponsored.  It also abandoned the effort to lead an expansion of the rule-bound order it had created.  Over three dozen treaties are pending in the U.S. Senate.  The last time it approved one was in 2008.

The United States has failed to ratify international compacts that regulate a widening range of arenas of importance to it.  These include conventions on the law of the sea, nuclear testing, the arms trade, human rights, and crimes against humanity.  Washington has withdrawn from or suspended compliance with conventions on the laws of war and agreements on arms control, combating climate change, and trade and investment.  It has ceased to participate in or sought to sabotage a growing list of United Nations specialized agencies and related institutions.  Notwithstanding the current global pandemic, these include the World Health Organization.  This generation of American politicians does not seem to understand that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

America’s withdrawal from its traditional role in global rule-setting and enforcement deprives the United States of the dominant influence it long exercised through the institutions it created.  Other great powers remain wedded to the old American-led order expressed in the United Nations Charter.  But America’s exemption of itself from the comity of nations and its spontaneous metamorphosis from world leader to global dropout have left it unable to aggregate the power of other nations to its own.  Washington’s resort to abusive language, threats and coercive measures has grown as its capacity to apply its power non-coercively has declined, further reducing the numbers of foreign allies, partners, and friends willing to bandwagon with America.

The European Union remains impotent and cannot fill the breach created by the United States’ sidelining of itself.  Rising and resurgent great powers – like China, India, Brazil, and Russia – now have a free hand to reshape and supplement legacy institutions to their advantage, and they are doing so.  In some ways, their initiatives are constructive.  Unfortunately, in others they are not.  This is especially true of their reliance on precedents set at Guantánamo that justify “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” the criminalization of resistance to military occupation, “targeted killings,” and the replacement of the rule of law with ruthless expediency.  Russia saw the example of NATO’s war to separate Kosovo from Serbia as a precedent justifying its separation of Crimea from Ukraine.  As America ceased to set a good example, the world became less civilized.

The decline in U.S. clout internationally is made even more consequential by the fact that China has resources, including money, to offer its partners, and – except for military shock and awe – the United States does not.  The United States’ budget is in chronic deficit.  Even routine government operations must now be funded with debt.  America has spent trillions of borrowed dollars on wars in the Islamic world that it can neither win nor end.  Its so-called “forever wars” siphoned off the funds needed to keep its human and physical infrastructure at levels competitive with those of China and other great economic powers.  They also crippled U.S. statecraft by defunding non-military means to advance or defend American interests abroad and curtailing U.S. contributions to the international institutions charged with assuring global peace and development.

The Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the New Development Bank and their infant sister institutions affirm American-invented global systems and practices.  They do not challenge legacy lenders like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.  They supplement such institutions by recreating and recapitalizing them in forms exempt from American veto, sabotage, or stonewalling.  The most recent example of such necessity-driven invention is the Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement.  This effectively nullifies a key element of American vandalism of the World Trade Organization (WTO).  It enables the continued orderly resolution of trade and investment disputes between the EU, China, and others without the participation of the United States.  Similarly, current international efforts to craft a multi-currency system for trade settlement and reserve management to replace the dollar do not reflect dissatisfaction with its service in these roles.  They are driven by universal foreign objections to hegemonic American bullying through unilateral dollar sovereignty-based sanctions.

Coercive approaches to statecraft are inherently alienating.  Claims to superiority that are not empirically substantiable are unpersuasive.  Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power.  Advocating democracy abroad while deviating from it at home destroys rather than enhances American credibility.  America’s addiction to debt risks eventual financial collapse even as it limits immediate policy options both at home and abroad.

If the United States succeeds in making its contest with China mainly military, as the military-industrial-congressional complex desires, Americans are less likely to spend the Chinese into national bankruptcy than the Chinese are to bankrupt the United States.  A strategy based on the presumption that Asian and other nations are committed to eternal dependence on U.S. military protection against Washington’s enemy du jour cannot succeed.  No country wants to be caught in a Sino-American firefight.  If the United States goes to war with China, the outcome is at best uncertain.  A nuclear exchange cannot be ruled out.

Protectionism and xenophobia promise to reduce American prosperity and retard innovation, not make the United States once again competitive.  Trade and investment policies based on the rejection of comparative advantage promote inefficiency and stagnation rather than growth.  Retreating into the “Five Eyes” technology stockade while barring the gates to Chinese scientists and students is less likely to sustain American international standard setting and scientific primacy than to cede the global commons to China and others.  Withdrawal from multilateral organizations forfeits influence in them and yields it to others more open to diplomatic give and take.  The United States is weakened, not strengthened, by muscular diplomacy-free foreign policy and the incapacitation of every instrument of statecraft other than the military.

For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so.  Unless the United States cures its fiscal feebleness, rebuilds the capacities and competence of its government, upgrades its human and physical infrastructure, and reopens itself to trade, investment, and immigration, America’s roles in global governance, trade, investment, finance, supply chain management, technology standards and systems, and scientific collaboration will continue to contract as those of China and others expand.  The United States’ capacity to innovate will decline, as will American well-being and self-confidence.  This diminishment of the United States is not the consequence of Chinese predation but of American hubris, political ineptitude, and diplomatic decrepitude.  To compete internationally with China, the United States must get its act together at home and, in its foreign relations be everything it claims China is now not – that is: trustworthy, truthful, empathetic, considerate, courteous, and dignified.  Above all, America must itself return to living by the rules – old and new – it expects others to follow.

The essence of any strategy is the efficient linkage of resources and capabilities to feasible objectives.  Current U.S. China policy is strategy-free.  With neither resources nor institutional capabilities to back it, it amounts to puerile fantasy.  Washington is determined to crush the China of its imagination, but China exists whether the United States understands it or not.  The American turn against China began as neurosis but has now crossed into psychosis – evidencing a loss of contact with reality and inability to interact normally with other nations.  This is a product of populism, which habitually disdains facts, embraces politically appealing xenophobic narratives, corrodes discipline and the capacity for self-sacrifice, and rejects expertise in favor of ideologically inspired preconceptions implemented by true believers and untested amateurs.

U.S. China policy at present is a classic example of demonizing a foreign foe to rally support at home and divert attention from festering political, economic, and social problems.  This is an approach that is highly unlikely to result in a Cold War-style victory for the United States or the Enlightenment values that gave birth to it.  Quite the opposite.  All the more so if spurious analogies to a cock-eyed view of the Cold War continue to shape the American approach to competitive interaction with China.

[1] The 四不像 [sìbùxiàng] is actually the Père David’s deer or 麋鹿 [mílù], a unique species of elk long extinct in the wild but preserved in the imperial game parks of Beijing and saved from complete extinction by rendition to European zoos before its Chinese remnant herd was slaughtered in the Boxer Rebellion.  In 1985, the 麋鹿 was reintroduced to China from England, where a breeding population had been established.

[2] Proposed U.S. spending on national security in FY-2021 totals $1.21 trillion, about twice the Pentagon “base budget.”  In March 2020, when this budget proposal was put forward, U.S. GDP was $21.535 trillion and falling.  For a breakdown, see

[3] SEATO is dead, as is CENTO.  The Philippines is moving toward strategic neutrality.  Thailand is now closer to China than to America.  Pakistan is estranged from the United States.  Iran and Iraq are both anti-American.  Japan sensibly prioritizes its own defense.  South Korea is appropriately obsessed with North Korea and avoiding Sino-Korean hostility.  Even Australia is torn between its reliance on the China market and its distaste for China’s increasingly hegemonic behavior.