Cold war or uneasy peace: does defining US-China competition matter?
Many are beginning to fear the world may soon be caught in the crossfire between Beijing and Washington
In July 1971, US national security adviser Henry Kissinger embarked on a secret mission to China, then America’s sworn enemy. This 48-hour ice-breaking trip paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Chairman Mao a year later. Nixon’s visit altered the strategic geometry of the cold war and influenced Washington’s subsequent movement towards détente with Moscow.
Half a century on, as Joe Biden arrived in Cornwall to attend the G7 meeting, there was a looming sense of history in the making again – one that involves the talk of allies (a group of like-minded democracies) and adversaries (notably Russia and China). It is also one that invokes memories of the cold war in the 1970s, when strategists like Kissinger crafted the art of balancing power between the US, China and the Soviet Union.
“He is not flying across the Atlantic to wallow in nostalgia for the alliances that won the first cold war. He is drumming up recruits for the second one,” a Guardian columnist remarked on Tuesday. On the same day, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved the Innovation and Competition Act, a rare show of unity between Democrats and Republicans. Beijing responded, calling it “filled with cold war zero-sum mentality”.
Some veteran observers of Sino-US relations say that while it is important to grasp the nature of the major power competition, the analogy of the 20th-century cold war is unhelpful. They think the nature of the modern-day US-China relationship is fundamentally different from that between Soviet Union and the West.
“I think it’s best not to use the cold war analogy,” said Stapleton Roy, a Soviet expert turned US ambassador to China, in a new BBC World Service documentary that explores the legacy of Kissinger’s clandestine 1971 visit.
Roy worried that as journalists, pundits and policymakers continue to casually talk of the approach of a cold war 2.0, we run the risk of being engulfed in a self-fulfilling prophecy that would eventually see a US-China military confrontation unavoidable – and doubtlessly disastrous.
“What is happening in the world today is no different from what has happened throughout history, when major countries have had differences with other major countries. And history shows sometimes that leads to war, sometimes that leads to standoffs,” he added.
In November 2019, a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, 96-year-old Henry Kissinger spoke about this subject in Beijing. He told his biographer, historian Niall Ferguson, who interviewed him on that occasion, that we were “in the foothills of a cold war”.
“Kissinger saw some possibility of, in fact, improving relations between the US and China and between the US and Russia. And it didn’t happen,” recalled Ferguson. “Things went in a different direction from the one that he would have preferred as Trump … launched a trade war and a tech war. Vice-president Pence raised the rhetorical level in his Hudson Institute speech in October of 2018.”
In Beijing, although foreign ministry spokespeople often deploy the vocabulary of “cold war” when responding to western criticisms, Yan Xuetong, one of China’s most respected foreign policy thinkers, said he saw the phrase “cold war” as misleading.
“I would prefer to use [the] term ‘an uneasy peace’ to describe the China-US competition rather than a new cold war, because the new cold war is driven by that ideological expansion of the US and Soviet Union and through proxy wars,” Yan said.
The stakes are high. But however one defines the current interactions between Beijing and Washington, many now fear that individuals on both sides of the Pacific, as well as middle-sized powers around the world, may sooner or later be caught in the crossfire.
Countries like Australia may have already made up their minds about which side to take. But many smaller and less powerful Asian states, for example Singapore and other south-east Asian nations, have kept warning both sides not to force them into a situation where they will have no choice but to pick a side.
For many individuals in China, the US-China rapprochement and Beijing’s subsequent opening-up in the late 1970s changed the lives of millions. But this is also something that, many say, pundits and strategists often neglect when talking about “the grand strategy” in a 21st-century “new cold war”.
In July 1971, on learning that Nixon was coming to China following Kissinger’s secret trip, 12-year-old Beijing resident Zha Jianying knew her life would be changing, too. “I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but I had a vague sense that it was the beginning of something,” she said.
In the early 1980s, Zha became one of the first batches of Chinese students to study in the United States. It was there that she began her writing career. With a unique perspective amalgamating both Chinese and American views, her long-form writing for New Yorker magazine illuminated the English-speaking world and provided a window into the many contradictions of her home country.
“Fifty years on, we are on the cusp of massive change again,” she said. “As the talk of a ‘new cold war’ prevails, I worry that some innocent souls on both sides of the Pacific are going to be caught in the cracks of history and nuance being lost. Confrontational rhetoric is making everything look darker. There might be no turning back.”
Vincent Ni is the Guardian’s China affairs correspondent. He also presents the new BBC World Service documentary When Kissinger went to China.