Cold War II: China vs. The United States

May 1st, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Over the last decade, the West has seen China emerge as a formidable economic power; its GDP is second only to the United States.  When Western leaders welcomed China into the world trading system in 2001, many believed that China would automatically become freer as it became richer.  When that did not occur, the Trump administration believed that coercion, high tariffs and sanctions would change China’s behavior.  That has not worked either. Few doubt that the greatest foreign policy and economic challenge facing the US is China.  How should we think about the growing economic powerhouse, which also seeks military domination of Asia as well?


  • First, the serious nature of this situation was exhibited in the Biden administration’s first high-level talks with China.  After Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the regime of Xi Jinping as a “threat to global stability” and criticized its repression in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, China’s Yang Jiechi responded with a 17-minute tirade that, among other things, advised the United States to “stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”  The day before these discussions in Anchorage, the Biden administration had sanctioned two dozen officials involved in the Hong Kong repression. And in an impressive joint action, the United States on Monday joined Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in adopting new sanctions, in parallel with the European Union, against those involved in the genocidal campaign against Xinjiang’s ethnic Uyghurs.  “The administration has made clear that its strong opposition to China’s human rights abuses and belligerence toward Taiwan and other neighbors does not preclude cooperation on matters of mutual interest. Just as President Ronald Reagan lambasted the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ while striking landmark arms control agreements, Mr. Biden is looking for common ground with Mr. Xi on climate change, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, and a peace settlement in Afghanistan.”  But, here is the critical point of cleavage between the US and China:  “China and the United States lead opposing camps in a global contest over the future of human governance. Mr. Xi wants to convince the world that ‘the East is rising, while the West is in decline,’ and that China’s high-tech authoritarianism is the best model for the 21st century. Mr. Biden is rightly determined to show that democracy, with its emphasis on individual freedom, can still prevail. It’s important that the United States show in the coming years that its political system still works at home. But it’s also vital to educate the world about what underpins Mr. Xi’s regime: concentration camps, the eradication of minority cultures and the silencing of all critical voices.”  China sees itself as an alternative to American democracy, which has been marred by economic inequality, racial unrest and an insurrection on 6 January 2021.  However, because China is woven into the global economy, it has much to lose from rhetoric accurately depicting it as barbarous and dangerous.
  • Second, China presents its own values as a model for other nations.  John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul argues that “They’re actually trying to build an argument like, ‘We’re the more responsible power.  We’re not the spoilers or an axis of evil.”  Steven Lee Myers thus concludes that “the world is increasingly dividing into distinct if not purely ideological camps, with both China and The United States hoping to lure supporters.”  Of all the nations aligning with China, Russia is perhaps the most significant.  Vladimir Putin has long complaining about America’s hegemony and its use of the global financial system as an instrument of its foreign policy.  These two countries diplomatic and economic ties have deepened in common cause against the US.  Their respective militaries routinely hold joint exercises together and they recently announced that they would build a research station on the moon together.  Two authoritarian nations increasingly bound together is not healthy for the democracies of the world.
  • Third, as David Ignatius argues, “What [is] different this time, perhaps, was an unspoken Chinese sense that because of the United States’ internal divisions, Beijing has the upper hand.  The biggest potential flash point is Taiwan, where the Chinese might be tempted to exploit what they see as U.S. weakness and division. Normally, the Chinese believe that time is on their side and play a waiting game, but Taiwan might be an exception. In private conversations, Americans are cautioning the Chinese not to overplay their hand against a country that has immense military experience . . .  Blinken and Sullivan underlined the United States’ continuing commitment to the ‘foundational documents’ on Taiwan. Those include three joint communiques, signed in 1972, 1979 and 1982, in which the United States acknowledges ‘one China’ across the Taiwan Strait; the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that established de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan; and the ‘Six Assurances’ of 1982 that the United States would continue to support Taiwan even though it didn’t have formal state-to-state ties.”  The Biden administration’s emphasis on “the Quad” — the informal U.S. partnership with India, Japan and Australia — has at least modestly bolstered the United States’ position in the region. [“The Quad” — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — is indeed a counterweight to China. The four have combined populations of 1.85 billion and combined GDPs of $30.8 trillion, compared with China’s 1.4 billion and $14.3 trillion.] India, in particular, has moved further and faster than U.S. officials expected. And Japan, though feeling its way under new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, remains a committed partner.  Therefore, “China faces a paradox in Asia: The stronger and more confident it becomes, the more it frightens its neighbors and pushes them toward Washington.”
  • Fourth, Matt Pottinger, former national security adviser, summarizes China’s intentional targeting of the US business community:  “If you want to do business in China, it must be at the expense of American values.  You will meticulously ignore the genocide of ethnic and religious minorities inside China’s borders; you must disregard that Beijing has reneged on its major promises—including the international treaty guaranteeing ‘a high degree of autonomy’ for Hong Kong; and you must stop engaging with security-minded officials in your own capital unless it’s to lobby them on Beijing’s behalf . . . [China has] the explicit goal of making the world permanently dependent on China, and exploiting that dependency for political ends . . . of making China independent of high-end imports from industrialized nations while making those nations heavily reliant on China for high tech supplies and as a market for raw materials.”
  • Finally, Bret Stephens cogently offers several significant challenges that authoritarian China faces:  [1] China has clearly abandoned orthodox Marxism and replaced it with a militant nationalism.  “Nationalism explains Beijing’s truculence when it comes to its maritime and territorial claims against its neighbors, its massive arms buildup, its escalating threats to Taiwan and its habit of wearing out its welcome even in countries it seeks to woo.”  As mentioned above, however, China’s militant nationalism pushes several Asian nations in the direction of the US (e.g., the Quad but also Vietnam).  To further counter the growing nationalism of China, perhaps the US should re-consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.  Its sole design was to counter the economic weight of China in Asia.  [2] Xi Jinping has clearly built a personality cult around himself.  Indeed, he “has consolidated power like no other leader since Mao Zedong.  But Xi cannot overcome the inherent weaknesses of hyper-centralized power.  The more power one man holds, the more vulnerable the entire regime is to misjudgments.”  [3}  China’s leaders have always  been ferocious in their repression of spiritual and religious movements (e.g., Falun Gong, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and independent Christian churches).  The reason?  “Religion cultivates a moral conscience free of political control.  But moral conscience is not something any government in history has been able to compel, which is why the West was wise when it adopted the principle of religious liberty.”


When Cold War I occurred with the Soviet Union, the US and the world were facing a significant military power, but one whose economy was virtually a Third World one.  Cold War II has begun, but this time the US and the world face not only a growing military power, but also a robust economic and financial giant, soon to rival the economy of the US.  May God give our leaders wisdom and discernment in dealing with this daunting superpower.

See editorial in the Washington Post (22 March 2021); David Ignatius, “China is convinced America is in decline” in the Washington Post (22 March 2021); George Will, “Biden’s Trumanesque foreign policy” in the Washington Post (24 March 2021); Matt Pottinger in the Wall Street Journal (27-28 March 2021); Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times (30 March 2021); and Bret Stephens in the New York Times (30 March 2021).

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