In our deeply polarized politics, when Republicans and Democrats agree on something, that alone should be grounds for suspicion. And so it is with regard to China. Across the political spectrum, China has become villain number one in what too often gets labelled a new “cold war.”
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
The analogy is unhelpful because the United States and China are and will remain enmeshed economically in a way the United States and the Soviet Union scarcely were. To be sure, China has played into the hands of its opponents by engaging in “wolf” diplomacy to the point of blaming the pandemic on the United States.
As a practical matter, the anti-China policies of Trump and Biden would be very different in detail. Trump would continue to wage tariff war and obsess over the trade balance—an economically meaningless number. Biden no doubt would rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership and use it to build a coalition of like-minded states to pressure China over the intellectual property and subsidy issues Trump set out to address but then left aside, instead imposing tariffs on some of those potential allies.
Yet the deeper problem is conceptual: the Sino-American relationship is, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the key problem of our time. Each of us is strong enough to create situations around the world in which it can impose its preferences, but the importance of the relationship will be whether each side can believe that they have achieved enough to be compatible with their convictions and with their histories. That is a huge task. It’s never been attempted systematically by any two nations in the world.”
In framing that task, perhaps one analogy from the Cold War is apt: MAD (or Mutual Assured Destruction). Despite Soviet-American tension, the two sides understood, if not always eagerly, the nuclear deterrence would work if both sides were sure that they could deliver a knock-out blow even if the other side struck first; in particular, they limited defenses that might erode the surety of retaliation. Hence the grisly aphorism of nuclear strategy: “offense is defense, defense is offense; killing weapons is bad, killing people is good.”
This time around, both America and China will be joined in mutual destruction if they do not cooperate with regard to pandemics and the climate crisis. On those scores, cooperating with China is not a choice. It is an imperative. Not to cooperate would be mad.
Conceptually, alas, that carries the implication—one uncomfortable for a U.S. government that always finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time—that the United States will have to compete and cooperate with China at the same time.
At the next rung down in the ladder from cooperation to competition, many of the Chinese actions that worry the national security establishment are simply artifacts of China growing richer. As I read the recent Chinese record in Africa, for example, it has wasted some money and done some good, and in the process learned that geopolitical influence ain’t as easy as it looks: local conflicts are hard to escape, and African countries complain that imported Chinese get all the construction jobs (and then are sometimes left behind).
In the cyber realm, another Cold War analogy may be relevant—Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs). Most of those were intended to avoid escalation by accident; notifying military exercises in advance, for instance, would lessen the risk that the other side would mistake the exercise as the forward edge of an attack. Washington and Beijing made a start down that road with their 2015 agreement not to conduct cyberespionage for commercial purposes. The agreements seemed to reduce Chinese hacks, or at least make them stealthier, and then the new administration turned to trade warring. Still, some cyber rules of the road remain another place to start if and when serious conversation with China becomes possible.
In the technology competition, the problem—as several recent reports have pointed out—is not China but, as Pogo observed, us. Huawei and 5G is a telling example: the fact that the United States has no dog in that fight is not China’s fault but rather the result of U.S. companies abandoning that equipment field for reasons that no doubt made sense for them but not for the nation.
More generally, the language of who’s ahead and who’s behind seems to me more apt for horseraces than technology. Of course, China will pursue artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies. If Americans worry about the state of their technology—as recent reports do—again the answer lies at home, harkening back to the last century when the government funded much more basic research than it does now. The private sector’s genius is consumer products, not basic research.
The hardest rung in the cooperation/cooperation ladder is military, which seems inherently competitive. There too, however, some perspective is helpful: while the comparisons are tricky, the United States spends much more on its military than China, and is, over-all, a much stronger military power. In one recent count, the United States had 38 named military bases abroad, while China had one or two! By another count, which included “lily pads”—facilities abroad with fewer than 200 U.S. personnel—the U.S. total came to 800 in 2014, at a total cost ranging up to $200 billion.
If we worry about shortcomings or vulnerabilities, the fault is what we buy, not what we spend. China has learned from us, particularly about the need to strike promptly in any war and not let us enjoy the long, leisurely supply lines to which we have become accustomed since the fall of the Soviet Union. For instance, China has opted for missiles, while we continue to feature manned aircraft, which are, including aircraft carriers, probably the most expensive item in the defense budget.
As in other areas, some of the change just is. We can no longer confidently plan to push American power to China’s borders. On that score, the issue in the headlines is the South China Sea, but the real issue is Taiwan. “Strategic ambiguity” about the particulars of the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan has been U.S. policy in the decades since the Shanghai Communique, on the assumption—now clearly shattered—that a changing China would one day accommodate Taiwan. The immediate issue is whether to exchange ambiguity for clarity that the United States would defend Taiwan if China tried to take it with force of arms. That would, however, imply risking nuclear war over Taiwan.
Kissinger’s task is all the harder because the trajectories of the two countries are comprised of very different “convictions” and “histories.” Until the Qing dynasty collapsed in the eighteenth century, the wealthy in China lived as well as counterparts in Britain, and colonial Americans admired the country not just for its porcelain and silk but for its enlightened Confucian civilization. China was a superior power but, happily, far enough away not to be a competitor. However, “the 19th century was as merciless to the splendor of the Qing Empire as it was fortuitous for the rise of the United States. Americans would gradually associate China not with enlightened governance and luxury manufactures, but with backwardness, poverty, and weakness.”
Now, once more, the trajectories are going in different directions, China rising and America declining, at least in relative terms. The current American hand wringing ignores the perils China faces: it is, for instance, not obvious that China will escape the “middle-income trap,” stagnation that seems to set in when countries get to around $17,000 in per capita income. What is not uncertain is that those of us, like me, who thought China might change as it got richer were naïve: China is not going to become democratic. And it will remain determined, at all costs, not to repeat the predations of the 19th century; for it, defense will become offense. Whether we in the United States can find a way to make that compatible with our own history and convictions is the crucial piece of the answer to Kissinger’s question.
 Interview with Stapleton Roy, Wilson Center, September 20, 2018, available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-key-problem-our-time-conversation-henry-kissinger-sino-us-relations.
 David Vine, Where in the World Is the U.S. Military? Politico, July/August 2015, available at https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321.
 John Delury, “China as Equal: Putting China as Rival into Historical Context,” Perspectives on History, September 17, 2020, available at https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2020/china-as-equal-putting-china-as-rival-into-historical-context.