Are the United States and China Headed For Cold War?

The majority of Chinese seem to think so.

Or perhaps more accurately, a statistically questionable majority of the Chinese who happened to be polled by the Sunday Times think so.

Not that this is anything new. The world has been worrying about a new Cold War between China and the United States for quite a while now. It is a story that surfaces once a year or so, usually when the news stations are at a lull and somebody in Beijing or Washington says something stupid. The recent diplomatic chill between Washington and Beijing is a fair example of this process; there is little reason to believe that this diplomatic spate is much different than the dozens of such spates America has with various actors on the international scene every year. This one has no claim to distinguish it from the rest.

Many of the news reports published over the last week would have you think otherwise. Part of this can be attributed to the sensationalism inherent in today’s political discourse, but I think there is more to it than that. Though the news reports carrying the title “Cold War!” rarely have anything of interest to say about Sino-U.S. relations, they do say something very interesting about the women and men who write them.

What these papers betray is the acute sense of nostalgia felt by the upper ranks of America’s foreign policy establishment. This seems counter intuitive at first; living on the edge of Armageddon was not a pleasant experience. But there were benefits to the Cold War. It gave America a sense of purpose. The strategy needed to fulfill this purpose was clear to those holding the reigns of power — how simple were the days when the United States could utilize the same grand strategy for the span of two generations! The latter generation barely had to exert itself. The general form of things had been decided in times past; they just needed to hammer down the deadly specifics.

It is for such simplicity the modern analyst yearns. The world would be so much easier to handle if China were the new Red Evil. We have already built up the conceptual framework to take on any belligerent aspiring to the title of Superpower, it would simply be a matter of applying this framework to the local environment. We would do it in no time, I am sure. The minute China began to intimidate and anger her neighbors, America would be there, a great balancing alliance in toe. It would be just like old times.

Old times, however, never last.

Much of what is found inside Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World is wrong, a bit less is right, and a few choice sections are downright brilliant. Zakaria ended his chapter on China with one of these brilliant moments:

“But what if China adheres to its asymmetrical strategy? What if it gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence in the world? What if it slowly pushes Washington onto the sidelines in Asia, in an effort to wear out America ‘s patience and endurance? What if it quietly positions itself as the alternative to a hectoring and arrogant America ? How will America cope with such a scenario– a kin of Cold War, but this time with a vibrant market economy, with the world’s largest population, a nation that is not showcasing a hopeless model of state socialism or squandering its power in pointless military interventions?”

(Fareed Zakaria, The Post American World, 2nd ed. pp. 127-128)

Well mates, this – not a new cold war – is America’s challenge. Any budding grand strategists ready to tackle it?

ADDENDUM: There is an interesting discussion going on concerning China’s future over at Sublime Oblivion. I suggest those interested in the subject go and take a look at it.

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Free trade has kept these emotions considerably cooled for a decade. I am concerned that we jeopardize that as protectionists have the upper hand today.

@YT: "Chimerica" could only last as long as the United States remained the consuming engine of the world economy. Now, however, the Chinese are able to send their exports to many a market closer to home; America is not needed.

@Greergolf: Alas, I am not a Stratfor subscriber, and thus cannot read their articles.

@Jk: An important element, to be sure, but I do not think protectionism alone explains things. As Chinese stratagems for regional domination come to fruition and U.S. purchasing power shrinks, this type of posturing will undoubtedly come to pass. Protectionism just gives proceedings a bit of jazz.