Lessons China, US can draw from the Cold War
The second round of China-US diplomatic and security dialogue was held in Washington on Friday. It took place when trade tensions between the two countries are simmering. Where are bilateral relations going? What is the significance of the dialogue? Global Times ( GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Avery Goldstein ( Goldstein), director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, about these issues. GT: How would you analyze China-US relations in the past year or so? Goldstein: I would say that the bilateral relations have gotten significantly worse over the past year. But the reality is they began to worsen even during the second term of president Barack Obama. There are a lot of issues over which the US and China have conflicts, and there are relatively fewer areas in which close cooperation continues, such as climate change, anti-terrorism and, until 2018, the Iran nuclear deal. But the relationship had begun to move in a direction such that by around the 2016 election, both the Democrats and Republicans were fairly united in terms of wanting to push a tougher line against China. So even if Hillary Clinton had won, her advisors would have adopted a much tougher approach toward China.
The Trump administration, however, brought on board people who were much more determined to not just confront China but to confront it in a way that suggests it’s unclear whether confrontation is part of a negotiating strategy to reset the relationship or whether it’s just a long-term strategy of confrontation in the hope of keeping China down. GT: What are the conflicts of interests between the two? Goldstein: The conflicts of interest are overstated. Most of the concern focuses on China’s rising power. Power is not an interest. The question is what is the interest that makes you nervous about Chinese power. Many thought the US had an interest, at least before President Trump, in seeing general change in the nature of regimes around the world GT becoming more democratic, promoting the free flow of information on the internet and sharing values that the US thinks are in part universal values. The US hoped to see these values embraced around the world. China definitely doesn’t agree with that. So, I suppose that’s one area where the US and China have a conflict of interest.
But in terms of territory, for example, the US and China have no disputes. There is, however, a conflict of interest over freedom of navigation in the oceans. I don’t actually believe that this is a fundamental conflict of interest, because outside of the South China Sea, China also believes in the same principles of freedom of navigation as the US, especially since I think that China will one day want to be able to do what the US does in terms of the freedom of navigation close to the US.
It’s really hard to figure out what the serious conflicts of interest are, unless you believe, as some in the Trump administration appear to, that economics is a zero-sum game; that if China gets rich, America suffers. It seems that the Trump administration’s view on trade, for example, is not one that sees a growing pie, but a fixed pie in which if I get a bigger slice, you get a smaller one.
What is the US’ fear of China? The US enjoys being the most powerful country by a wide mar- gin. A realistic assessment of military capabilities, economic capabilities and technological capabilities shows that China is still very far behind. But the US does not want to wait until China closes the gap too much because under the current circumstances, in most places around the world the US can operate without concerns of being prevented from doing what it wants. The exception is near China. China today is strong enough that even though the US has the military power to have its way, it has become very risky to press its advantage near China because Beijing can punish, or inflict costs on the US and its forces. GT: What could be the trigger for a head-on confrontation between the two? Goldstein: I don’t think economic issues are the most dangerous trigger, because the worst-case scenario is a military conflict. Incidents in the South China Sea or a change in US policy in the Taiwan Straits that leads China to believe that it needs to take action which would then require Washington to make a decision about a response are the sorts of dangerous situations that are most worrisome. I’m less worried about the North Korea problem. President Trump has already effectively taken the military option off the table. And I don’t think he’s able to return to putting “maximum pressure” on North Korea, not only because South Korea’s view of the North has changed, but also because China would be less likely to go along this time. GT: Under such circumstances, will the diplomatic and security dialogue be helpful? Goldstein: I think it’s important. It will not fundamentally change the relationship, but it’s important to maintain the communications channels because both sides have to figure out how to manage the competition. There are 3 Cs – cooperation, competition and confrontation. For a long time, the Chinese said we want to build cooperation though there are still some areas of competition. The real concern now is not how much cooperation you can maintain, but can you ensure that we remain in the realm of competition and don’t shift to confrontation.
I think the military-to-military exchanges are very important in terms of figuring out how to manage things such as US freedom of navigation and the freedom of overflight operations in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and near China’s coast, how do we make sure that incidents in which ships collide don’t take place. The dialogues are important for making sure that both sides understand how the other will behave. GT: Will there be a cold war between China and the US? Goldstein: Well, let’s say this: A cold war is better than a hot war. In a sense, we are already in a cold war in which both sides now see each other largely as competitors, rivals, may be adversaries. And the US does increasingly view this as a bipolar competition with a main rival. But there are some differences. As of now, ideological issues are not significant between the two sides, which was the case during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The world is different today. Whatever the rivalry between the US and China, it will include tensions and will lead both sides to plan for the possibility of a military conflict, as both already do. It will be different from the Cold War, however, because the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries were completely isolated from the West. That’s not the case today with China or the countries near China. And it’s not going to be the case no matter how bad relations between the US and China become. East Asian countries, especially Southeast Asian countries, and Central Asian countries are not going to cut off their ties with China or the US.
One positive lesson from the Cold War that the US and China should embrace is the idea that it is not enough just to have strategic dialogues, that actual arms control talks can be useful because they help manage the competition between rivals and reduce the risks of escalation should crises and conflicts occur.