The U.S. didn't start Cold War 2

A revisionist China smashes the global order at its own peril

Back in March, I predicted that Biden’s embrace of more progressive economic policies would push the Left toward a greater focus on foreign policy. There are some signs that this prediction is being borne out, with the extreme energy and activism around the Palestinian cause. But there’s also a backlash slowly building on the Left against the bipartisan agreement that the U.S. needs to take a harder line on China.

A collection of progressive groups, including the well-known Sunrise Movement, recently wrote an open letter urging the U.S. to adopt a cooperative stance toward China, for the purpose of saving the climate. The letter criticizes the “escalating, bipartisan anti-China rhetoric in both Congress and the White House”, while declining to specify whether or not the “rhetoric” they’re referring to is the widespread criticism of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

And in a June essay in Foreign Affairs, Bernie Sanders warned that the U.S. was beating “the drums for a new Cold War”. While criticizing China’s human rights abuses and trade practices, Sanders places the blame for “zero-sum global confrontation” squarely on the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and likens it to the War on Terror.

In a follow-up blog post, Peter Beinart goes even farther. He praises Sanders for voting against the Democratic-backed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, saying that the science funding bill was “aimed at combatting China”, and comparing the bill — rather ludicrously — to the 2001 resolution authorizing the War on Terror. (Beinart also appears to be wrong about why Sanders voted against the bill; in fact, Bernie was worried that the funds would go to support billionaires.) In another piece, Beinart warns that a new Cold War would put Asian Americans in danger.

The Left’s push against Biden’s tough stance toward China makes one big assumption. They assume that China is a willing, cooperative partner, alienated by the choices of a hawkish United States bent on starting a new Cold War. If only we would drop our aggression, we’re told, China would work with us on climate change, and might even lighten up on human rights.

The problem is, this is likely a fantasy. It’s not the U.S. foreign policy establishment that bears responsibility for starting Cold War 2. It’s mostly China.


We tried engagement, remember?

For decades, the widespread U.S. belief was that greater economic engagement with China would lead to that society reforming in a more democratic and rights-respecting direction. This policy is much derided now as a failure (including by Bernie Sanders!), but for a while it almost seemed to be working — under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China was still authoritarian but was far from the totalitarian nightmare it had been under Mao.

But with the ascension of Xi Jinping, China has now moved decisively away from that modest two-decade relaxation. It’s not returning to a Mao-like regime, but it is becoming totalitarian in many ways. The surveillance state it has built in Xinjiang is something out of a dystopian science-fiction novel (in fact, China’s most famous sci-fi author is apparently consulting on the project). Chinese citizens themselves are reportedly under greater repression. Engagement has now decisively failed at the goal of making China more free.

Meanwhile, Europe’s attempts to cooperate with China on climate policy have been less than successful. It basically wrecked the 2009 Cophenhagen climate talks, in order not to make any environmental commitments that would jeopardize its economic development. Meanwhile, despite making some bold emissions reduction pledges in recent years, China is pressing ahead with the construction of a vast fleet of new coal plants, and is financing the construction of other coal plants all over the world.

It is clear that for China, economic growth — and its own military power — take absolute precedence over addressing global warming. Cost reductions in solar and batteries will eventually persuade China to switch to green energy out of pure economic self-interest, but no amount of wheedling, cajoling, flattery, or “moral leadership” by the United States is likely to change its self-interested calculus one iota. And the increasing repression under Xi, which predates the Trump administration, shows that China is also not subject to American persuasion on human rights.

Engagement failed once, and it is clear that the kind of engagement being pushed by Beinart, Sanders, and the Sunrise Movement will fail even more quickly.

China’s aggressive moves

Even if engagement won’t work, a second Cold War is still a thing worth avoiding. Cold Wars are bad things. A new Cold War will again raise the possibility of nuclear holocaust (though hopefully the danger will be less than last time), and it will probably involve nasty proxy wars and support for nasty proxy regimes (though hopefully fewer than last time). And the possibility of a backlash against Asian Americans is definitely worth worrying about.

But the Left’s assumption that Cold War 2 is a United States policy choice is wrong. It’s anchored in the experience of the Iraq War, which really was entirely a war of choice. But folks like Beinart have over-learned the lessons of that debacle — it’s not always the U.S.’ fault.

The main cause of Cold War 2 is not economic. Yes, Trump did start a trade war with China, and Biden is continuing that trade war. But China had for decades been engaging in mercantilist policies against the U.S. that were far more aggressive than anything Trump or Biden has done — mercantilism that is increasingly difficult to justify on the grounds of national development. So China really started that. Meanwhile, Sanders himself is a loud critic of China’s economic policies and of the U.S. policy of opening to Chinese goods; he conceives of Cold War 2 in explicitly military and geopolitical terms, rather than economic terms, and in this he is correct.

Cold War 2 is about geopolitical power. In recent years, China has become more aggressive, pressing its territorial claims against most of its neighbors. It has engaged in “salami slicing” tactics to take territory from the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. It has had bloody clashes with India along their disputed border. It has increasingly intruded on Japanese territory whose ownership China disputes. Meanwhile, its increasingly bellicose rhetoric — known as “wolf warrior diplomacy” — has convinced even traditionally dovish China analysts that it’s time to start worrying.

And China seems to have a new resolve to conquer Taiwan, sooner rather than later. A recent article in Foreign Affairs asserts that Xi Jinping is surrounded by people who tell him that China will win such a conflict decisively. And terrifyingly, the article quotes sources who say that such an invasion would be preceded by an attack on U.S. military bases in the area, just to make sure the U.S. can’t help Taiwan out. Just to be clear, if China preemptively attacks the U.S. military, that will be World War 3.

This new international aggressiveness has contributed to a dramatic deterioration in opinions of China among its neighbors in recent years, and in many other countries besides. Meanwhile, the Uyghur repression and the crushing of Hong Kong have given countries in Asia an unwelcome glimpse of what life would be like under Xi Jinping’s hegemony.

These countries have increasingly been turning to the U.S. as a counterweight to China. India has joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the U.S., Japan, and Australia. Vietnam is moving closer to the U.S. militarily and diplomatically, as is the Philippines. Indonesia may be shifting in this direction as well. Meanwhile, Japan’s deputy prime minister recently declared that Japan would help the U.S. defend Taiwan (though he later walked the comments back).

In other words, the U.S.’ allies and potential allies want the U.S. to help resist Chinese encroachment. That encroachment, not any hawkish moves by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, is the cause of Cold War 2.

The status quo in Asia is good and worth preserving

Of course, the U.S. does have the option to back down in the face of Chinese aggression, to commit publicly and firmly not to defend Taiwan from invasion, to accept China as the rightful hegemon of Asia, and to abandon both allies and potential allies to their fate. Many leftists explicitly argue that the U.S.’ simple maintenance of the status quo is itself an act of aggression.

That might sound crazy, since U.S. assistance in helping other countries beef up their defenses against China doesn’t kill anyone, while a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or other large-scale war would kill quite a lot of people. But in fact, there are cases where we would call maintaining the status quo an act of aggression — for example, colonialism. If you think China is being subjugated by the U.S., and an invasion of Taiwan or other attack would be a way of throwing off that subjugation, then I guess you could call the status quo an act of aggression.

You’d be very wrong, though. The status quo in Asia has been, and continues to be, incredibly good for Asian countries, especially China itself. Under the international system created and safeguarded by the U.S. and its allies, the economic center of the world is shifting to Asia and away from Europe and the U.S. Since 1980, the countries of East Asia, and now increasingly Southeast Asia, have enjoyed rapid catch-up growth in an environment of general peace. China’s growth, of course, has been the most spectacular of all. Even with the trade war, China maintains a huge trade surplus with the U.S., selling us high-tech products while mostly importing only a few low-value agricultural products. The U.S.’ unilateral opening to Chinese-made goods, and tolerance of China’s mercantilism, was essentially a reversal of the “unequal treaties” forced on China by European powers a century earlier. The status quo in Asia is not one of American imperial domination, but of regional flourishing.

Asia is rising peacefully. Its economic heft, widespread prosperity, and cultural clout are all still on a steeply upward trajectory. That is what China’s aggression jeopardizes. To disrupt the Asian status quo and embark on bloody military adventures, when the status quo has been good for almost everyone in the region, would be not just a terrible crime but also a tragedy.

But in addition to preserving this status quo, there are other reasons the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t back down in the face of Chinese aggression. To allow a revisionist power to press revanchist territorial claims would invite more such adventures — not just by China, but by Russia and other regional powers. And in an age of normalized military aggression, every country would quickly realize that only nuclear weapons can offer a guarantee of territorial integrity. A return to a world of war, but this time with nukes, is not a future we should risk.

In other words, when the Left asserts that any resistance to China means that the U.S. is responsible for starting Cold War 2, it’s actually a call for appeasement. If Cold War 2 is upon us, we have little choice but to fight it — and, hopefully, to do it while avoiding the mistakes we made in Cold War 1.