Are The U.S. And China In A ‘Cold War’ Or Not?
U.S. and Chinese national flags fly, in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

Are The U.S. And China In A ‘Cold War’ Or Not?

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On May 20, 2020, the White House issued what history may record as one of the most important foreign policy and defence reports since 9/11: The United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China. Nowhere across its 16 pages is the term ‘Cold War’ mentioned. Rather, “strategic competition” is the buzz phrase repeated four times. There are two oblique references to India. The Chinese Communist Party is mentioned 36 times.

Are The U.S. And China In A ‘Cold War’ Or Not?

The Recent Watershed

Nevertheless, four days later, eschewing “strategic competition,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi admonished American leaders for provoking a “new Cold War” and prodding countries to choose sides. Presumably, he included India in his general reference to this polarising choice. What the Minister didn’t emphasise was the most worrisome announcement, from the CCP on May 21 about Hong Kong since the British handover on July 1, 1997: China’s National People’s Congress would impose on Hong Kong a National Security Law akin to one Hong Kong’s Legislative Council shelved after mass protests in 2003. Seven days after its Report, the U.S. all but decided to end the special trade status it’s granted Hong Kong since 1992, formally announcing the termination on May 29.

Riot police raise a blue flag warning demonstrators to disperse, in Hong Kong, on May 27, 2020. (Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg)
Riot police raise a blue flag warning demonstrators to disperse, in Hong Kong, on May 27, 2020. (Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg)

Throughout this momentous period, the U.S. Congress proceeded with legislation that could sanction individual CCP officials responsible for human rights repressions. President Donald J. Trump has pledged to sign the bill. That would be akin to targeted measures America imposes against Iranian officials, and to mandate foreign (read: Chinese) companies listed on U.S. exchanges to provide more transparent, reliable accounting and financial data. That follows the scandal involving Luckin Coffee (China’s Starbucks), which allegedly falsified its 2019 earning reports, prompting NASDAQ to delist the company.

So, to the point, following these May 20-29 events...

Are America and China in a ‘Cold War’?

The easy answer – ‘no, because during the 20th-century Soviet-American Cold War, those two countries had sparse trade, financial, and investment relations’ – is wrong. The criteria for a Cold War, as discussed below, don’t hinge on robust economic ties. Besides, ever since the March 2018 launch of the Sino-American Trade War, the two economies have been decoupling. That process will continue indefinitely with the Trade War and accelerate with a Cold War.

Words Matter

Words frame whether international relations are frosty or warm. The wrong ones exacerbate cross-border tensions and cause unnecessary conflict by mischaracterising intentions and spreading fake news. The rights ones are unflinchingly true, yet when put respectfully, de-conflict dilemmas. Countries can’t agree on that which they disagree, which is the second step away from war until they can agree on shared lingo to evaluate their predicament, which is the first step. Alas, neither the American Strategic Report nor Minister Wang’s reply articulates the meaning of Cold War or “strategic competition,” and neither the Report nor the Minister state why they picked the words they did.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, at the UN General Assembly in New York, on Sept. 27, 2019. (Photographer: Yana Paskova/Bloomberg)
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, at the UN General Assembly in New York, on Sept. 27, 2019. (Photographer: Yana Paskova/Bloomberg)

Confused? Well, The Times of India was. While its May 22 headline read ‘US formally announces onset of Cold War with China’, paragraph two began with the clause: “Just short of calling it Cold War, ...” [emphasis added]. More on how this conflict appears to Indian observers, in a bit.

The confusion is partly because there is no standard lexicographic sense of ‘Cold War.’ Different dictionaries describe hallmarks of what amount to a Cold War, but they don’t all mention all of the same attributes. Most cite the Soviet-American confrontation as a Cold War. Some call Saudi-Iranian conflicts across the Middle East, Indo-Chinese border disputes, and Indo-Pakistani fights over Kashmir, as Cold Wars. None proposes clear, predictable metrics for when a Cold War exists.

Let us clear the confusion by arriving at a standard definition, amalgamating and synthesising the five features of a Cold War.

1. There is no direct military engagement between the two principal players.

2. Indirect military action occurs through the use by each principal of state and/or non-state actors.

3. The principals deploy economic and political leverage, propaganda, and espionage to promote their power and influence.

4. Distinct core values of each principal generate an irreconcilable ideological rivalry.

5. The conflict is long-term.

In short, a ‘Cold War’ is sustained antagonism, manifest through non-military methods and surrogate military action, based on incompatible existential ideals.
A cyclist wearing a protective face mask passes the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, on Monday, April 13, 2020. (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)
A cyclist wearing a protective face mask passes the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, on Monday, April 13, 2020. (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Does The U.S.-China Rivalry Satisfy The Definition?

Yes, because applying the above definition, all five criteria are met.

First, Chinese and American forces are not (thus far, thank God) shooting at each other. China is not placing offensive military weapons on the territory of third countries, as did the U.S.S.R. in Cuba in 1963, nor strangling a U.S. ally, as did the Soviets to Berlin in 1961.

Second, China operates through proxies such as North Korea, Cambodia, and Laos, while the U.S. does so through South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Third, China uses its Belt and Road Initiative to gain economic and political leverage in nearly 70 countries. The U.S. offsets the BRI with “principled realism” and a refunded International Development Finance Corporation. China extends its outreach through state-owned media and curtails U.S. journalist activities in China. The U.S. restricts Chinese state-owned media and defends press freedoms. China counters U.S. accusations that Huawei is a national security risk with allegations that America spies on foreign leaders

Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei Technologies, following an extradition hearing in Vancouver, Canada, on May 27, 2020. (Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg)
Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei Technologies, following an extradition hearing in Vancouver, Canada, on May 27, 2020. (Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg)

Fourth, The CCP values are communitarian with a view to social stability. America’s Constitution treasures, above all else, individual life and liberty.

Fifth, the clash has played out since June 4, 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre, when—from the American perspective—the CCP showed its true face, but in truth since 1949, when capitalist America ‘lost’ China to the Communist Party.

No, because closer inspection of the five criteria reveals at least three are not met.

On the military parameters, Chinese and U.S. military forces regularly stare down and harass each other, most notably in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits. In other words, their engagements are not always ‘cold’.

On economic and political leverage, China’s proxies can’t possibly compete with the political influence of America’s network of allies. Economically, even before Covid-19, the Chinese state carries the weight of the enterprises it owns, and the banks saddled with bad debt from decades of domestic loans.

As to ideological rivalry, a nuanced analysis indicates the gap in values is not extreme. Having brought more people out of poverty than any regime in human history – a goal U.S. President Lyndon Johnson would have loved to achieve through the Great Society programs he launched in 1964-65 – the CCP has, since the reforms Deng Xiaoping catalysed in 1978, pursued a market economy. Technically, though the U.S. still labels China a “non-market economy,” other WTO Members beg to differ.

If This War Is Cold, Is India A Combatant?

Assuming America and China are in a Cold War, then so is India, goes the conventional wisdom.

Militarily, China is aligned with India’s long-standing rival, Pakistan. India gets no support from China on resolving Kashmir’s status, but is getting plenty of grief from China on its borders in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Politically, India’s secular democratic Constitution, which respects religious freedom, frames an entirely different lifestyle for Indians than does China’s Constitution, which enshrines CCP primacy and fails to protect Tibetan Buddhists from persecution, Uyghurs from internment, Christians from bemoaning China burning crosses and bulldozing churches, much less Taiwanese from bullying about (possible) brutal reunification.

Economically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally incentivised shifts from China to India in supply chains caused by the Sino-American Trade War, setting aside land twice the size of Luxembourg, and lobbying over 1,000 multinational corporations to ‘Make in India’.

However, India’s 21st century world view is closer to that of China than of America.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

India and China draw inferences about their 18th, 19th, and 20th century colonial domination that cast doubt on America’s contemporary global dominance. Militarily, neither country has a record—though not spotless—of invasions of foreign countries anything like that of the U.S. And, India opposes America’s Afghan peace deal, because it legitimises the Taliban, thus handing Pakistan a victory.

Politically, India was a Non-Aligned Movement founder, and while not much is left of the NAM, its conceptual legacy – that no country should be pinned to one great power – remains strong. China was an NAM observer. Economically, both countries see themselves as developing (including for WTO purposes, via a self-assessment mechanism with which America does not agree), which reinforces their suspicion of entanglements with hegemons.

Shakespearean Uncertainty

The Cold War-or-not destiny of America, China, and India is for them to script. To view this epithet – which originates from a mistranslation of a 14th century Castilian aristocrat, only through the prism of a bygone Soviet-American confrontation played out in Eastern Europe and Indochina is naïve. So, too, is to trust in personal relationships among Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Narendra Modi, each of whom is serially positive after their meetings.

For today’s protagonists, Shakespeare laid out the options in the 16th century through his characters Pucelle (i.e., Joan of Arc) and the Archbishop of York, respectively:

“Fight to the last gasp” (Henry VI, I:2:127)

versus

“A peace is of the nature of a conquest,

For then both parties nobly are subdued,

And neither party loser.” (Henry IV, Part II, 4:1:325-27).

Raj Bhala is the inaugural Brenneisen Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law, Senior Advisor to Dentons U.S. LLP, and member of the U.S. Department of State Speaker Program. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or University, Dentons or any of its clients, or the U.S. government, and do not constitute legal advice.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its Editorial team.

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