June 15, 2021

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The cold war between U.S. and China just got a lot hotter

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags.

Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

So, this is what life feels like “in the foothills of a new Cold War,” as Henry Kissinger has called it.Though perhaps the better metaphor would be “in the trenches,” for this week one could hear the steady din overhead from the escalating U.S.-Chinese conflict that will define our times.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as “completely unlawful,” and he pledged U.S. support for those countries that would wish to challenge Beijing.

For its part, China sanctioned Senators Ted Cruz and Mario Rubio, among others, in retaliation for their legislative actions against Chinese officials linked to the detention and repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On Tuesday, President Trump signed into law a bill to impose new sanctions on Chinese individuals, banks and businesses that are helping Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown. On the same day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his UK the first European country to ban use of Huawei’s 5G equipment.

Meanwhile, China threatened to sanction Lockheed over its defense sales to Taiwan, a warning shot to defense companies across the world. Beijing military and political officials increasingly share with foreign counterparts their ambition to alter Taiwan’s independent status by the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July of next year.

This Thursday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr branded some U.S. entertainment and tech companies – Disney, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple among them – as “all too willing to collaborate” with the Chinese Communist party. That followed last week’s charge by FBI director Chris Wray that Beijing pursues its ambitions through industrial espionage, theft, extortion, cyberattacks, and malign influence activities.

All this comes in the face of an unprecedented Chinese global propaganda, economic and intelligence blitz to seize the myriad opportunities that present themselves to China as the first major economy to recover from the pandemic it unleashed. China this week announced 3.2% growth in its second quarter, after a 6.8% decline in the first quarter, even as the United States and Europe remain in recession.

Under the cover of the coronavirus fog, China has stepped up its repression of its ethnic Muslim minorities, tightened its grip over Hong Kong, increased its pressure on Taiwan, stepped up tensions in the South China Sea, escalated attacks on Australia for seeking a coronavirus investigation, heightened pressure on Canada for detaining a Huawei executive, unleashed fatal force on the border of India and ratcheted up its propaganda against the United States.

All this comes in the face of an unprecedented Chinese global propaganda, economic and intelligence blitz to seize the myriad opportunities that present themselves to China as the first major economy to recover from the pandemic it unleashed.

“China may simply be taking advantage of the chaos of the pandemic and the global power vacuum left by a no-show U.S. administration,” write Kurt M. Campbell and Mira Rapp-Hooper this week in Foreign Affairs. “But there is reason to believe that a deeper and more lasting shift is underway. The world may be getting a first sense of what a truly assertive Chinese foreign policy looks like.”

Some argue that the danger of a U.S.-Chinese war is growing. What that misses, a prominent Asian business leader told me this week, is that China has already decided the war has begun. Like the Cold War before it, the outcome is unlikely to be decided by military means.  Also like the contest before it, the war will be fought not over days but over decades.

The conventional wisdom is that China is a far more formidable peer competitor than the Soviet Union ever was, given its size, its economic might and its technological prowess. The Chinese economy that accounted for less than 2% of global GDP in 1980, now at some 20% of global GDP.

The conventional wisdom follows that the United States is far less equipped in Cold War II to take on this competitor than it was during Cold War I, with its alliances weakened, its domestic politics polarized, its national debt spiraling and its COVID-19 health and economic misery growing worse.

That said, many of the lessons of the last Cold War can be applied to this one. With military deterrence, strategic patience and a renewed effort to galvanize Asian and European allies, the fundamental strengths of democracies and weaknesses of autocracies still would be decisive.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, one of the world’s leading experts on China, has called for a “managed strategic competition.” Each side would understand and accept the other’s red lines and core interests, difficult areas for cooperation could be identified (such as trade), and cooperation in easier areas could be advanced (such as for pandemics and climate change).

And though it may appear that China is ascendant, its system has grown more vulnerable as it has become more authoritarian under President Xi.

China’s weak spot

Chinese-American political scientist Minxin Pei notes  that during the five decades of Cold War “the rigidity of the Soviet regime and its leaders proved to be the United States’ most valuable asset.”

He argues that Chinese rigidities have been increased by President Xi’s decision in 2018 to abolish presidential term limits, by his heavy-handed purges of prominent party officials, through his suppression of Hong Kong, through the tightest media censorship since Mao, through the incarceration of more than a million Muslim minorities, and through over-centralization of economic and political decision-making.

“The centralization of power under Xi has created new fragilities and has exposed the party to greater risks,” writes Pei. “If the upside of strongman rule is the ability to make difficult decisions quickly, the downside is that it greatly raises the odds of making costly blunders.”

Trump administration officials believe their increasing efforts to counter a more assertive China could prove to be their most significant foreign policy legacy. That will only be true if they can combine it with a strategy that can sustain the effort in concert with allies and far beyond the limits of any single U.S. administration.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

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