Today’s cold warriors must feel a pang of envy looking back at the simplicity of the “First Cold War”, if we can call it that. Even during periods of détente, all American governments and the majority of Western Europeans accepted that the Soviet Union’s downfall was the ultimate objective.
But our era’s rivalry between the West and China (the “Second Cold War”, as some claim) has mostly been conducted on a whim, with rationalisations provided after events. Seldom discussed, if at all, is the end-goal. Does the West today want the downfall of the Chinese state or just of the Chinese Communist Party (a distinction without much meaning)? Or does it want to help build a reliable and trusted China, even with communists sitting comfortably in the halls of power in Beijing?
Washington’s financial hawks, for instance, want greater parity with China on trade, the ostensible reason for the Trump administration’s tariffs and “trade war”. The European Union is also single-minded about reciprocity. One might assume, then, that if Beijing completely opens its economy to foreign firms and purchases more Western exports to reduce its trade surplus, that would be a satisfying endgame for these financial hawks.
At the same time, however, Washington’s geopolitical hawks have opened another front in an effort to contain China’s expansionist actions. For them, a reasonable objective would be for Beijing to accept some sort of stalemate in areas such as the South China Sea, which means it no longer threatens rival claimants like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Yet, since China has already occupied and developed military bases on several of the territories in these waters, it’s not always clear whether these Western hawks want to roll-back China’s territorial claims or simply prevent further expansion. An endgame in this scenario would presumably mean China ending its hostilities with India, promising to stop threatening to invade Taiwan and, perhaps, imposing limits its military build-up.
As well as economic and geopolitical reform, another objective might include an agreement that Beijing will respect human rights, especially in its Xinjiang province, and upholds international treaties, which could mean retracting its national security law over Hong Kong and providing the territory with political autonomy until the agreed date of 2047.
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Speaking at the RAND think-tank in September, now former US Defence Secretary Mark Esper warned that China is “using predatory economics, political subversion, and military force in an attempt to shift the balance of power in [its] favour, and often at the expense of others.” Esper’s insinuation must be that Washington has identified three fronts on which to compete with China, and with each informing the other.
Indeed, the geopolitical has already melted into the “geo-economic,” with Washington’s focus on Huawei becoming a “tech war” that merges politics and economics. Near the beginning of Esper’s speech, he stated that China “is exerting its malign influence through its One-Belt, One-Road Initiative. This campaign has left weaker nations with crushing debt, forcing them to take their economic relief at the expense of their sovereignty.”
Are we to presume an American end-goal is to have Beijing stop investing abroad through its Belt and Road Initiative? Or for Beijing to curb how many loans it gives to foreign partners? China’s suspected “debt trap” diplomacy has become a major talking point in the West and with some justification. The issue has become particularly acute after a Chinese state-run firm took over the electricity grid of Laos last month because of the country’s debts to China.
With this “New Cold War” competition taking place on so many fronts, it is increasingly difficult to see what the US will identify as a success or even what actions Beijing could introduce that would temper the rivalry. Will there be détente if Beijing opens up its economy but doesn’t stop its expansionist threats and actions? Or vice-versa? Will limited economic and political reform from Beijing be enough for the West to allow China to play a dominant role in the international community?
Lurking in the background and only seldom rearing its head is the more troubling question of regime change. Does the West want a democratic China or, rather, the end of communism in China? Presumably yes. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, writing in Foreign Affairs in 2018, noted that ever since Nixon’s rapprochement with Beijing in 1972, “the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behaviour has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy.” This Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”), as the Germans call it, has now been shown to be an utter failure: Beijing hasn’t changed through trade, at least not in the direction towards liberal democracy the West wanted.
However, “change through trade” holds another meaning. The West has always wanted democratisation in China but only through gradual reform, not from a revolutionary event. There’s a good reason why this is the case. The Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani’s recent book, Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, provides an interesting chapter on what a democratic China would resemble.
I’ve often challenged Mahbubani’s opinions, especially those found in this book, but in one important aspect he is right here. “There is no question that if China suddenly becomes a democracy, it would emerge with a leader as interventionist and imperialistic as Teddy Roosevelt,” he writes.
He is correct: a China that suddenly emerges as democratic will be just as much of a geopolitical rival as communist Beijing is today – and perhaps more so.
Just consider the following: would a post-communist China be able to immediately guarantee its 1.3 billion people as fast a rise in living standards as that which has been delivered by the Communist Party? Probably not. Would it be able to sweep up all 1.3 billion people in a wave of democratic fervour? Almost certainly not. And would sudden democratisation lead to restive areas like Xinjiang and Tibet attempting succession? Most likely it would. Moreover, would the democratic government feel embattled by the rise of free-speech and allowance of protests in a way the Communist Party never has? Indeed it would.
As a result, the only real legitimation that might be held by a democratic government that swiftly took power in Beijing would be nationalism – after all, it is increasingly becoming the main legitimating factor for the communists, so it’s doubtful that a weak, inexperienced democratic government wouldn’t opportunistically use it. And a more nationalistic China is certainly not desirable for the West – it may ultimately increase the odds of a cold war turning “hot”.
The democratisation of China may be the unspoken end-goal of the West, but not liberalisation by any means. If the West goes too far in punishing communist Beijing, it may backfire. The only iron law of history, in the end, is that of unintended consequences. The West’s true end-goal, therefore, lies somewhat hazily between a communist China we can trust and a China that democratises gradually.
The end-goal of the “First Cold War” was simple: the downfall of the Soviet Union. This was also made all the more feasible by conditions that are not replicated in today’s West versus China rivalry.
US-Soviet trade peaked in 1979, but only at $4.5 billion, or 1% of America’s total trade. This meant that geopolitics was front and center in the Cold War, not geo-economics or the types of questions surrounding supply chains and the mutual dependency between the US and China that at the forefront of the debate today.
By comparison, China is the first or second-largest trading partner of most Western states. And any crisis in China would affect our markets. Neither was the Soviet Union party to any of the Western-backed institutions, whereas China is now more committed to them than the United States at the moment appears to be after four years of President Donald Trump. This month, China was voted onto the UN Human Rights Council that American vacated in 2018.
The Soviet Union was also unabashedly Marxist-Leninist, whereas China’s more opaque Leninist, state-run capitalism makes speaking about ideology less easy, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo found in July during a major speech. “I grew up and served my time in the Army during the Cold War. And if there is one thing I learned, communists almost always lie,” was one his more quotable comments, but it was hardly an observation on which to build a policy as long-lasting as George Kennan’s. Indeed, Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of 1947 essentially laid out from the start how the original Cold War was waged for more than four decades. No such outline or blueprint exists for today.
Foremost, though, the contemporaries of the original Cold War knew that, were the Soviet Union to collapse, a relative stability could still emerge from its ruins. The Soviet system, after all, was a scaffolding grafted by force over pre-existing states, nations, and cultures. When it did collapse in 1991, the new republics bore a striking resemblance to the states that existed before 1917. But the Chinese Communist Party’s clutch over the Chinese state is not scaffolding that can be removed while leaving intact what remains underneath. The Chinese Communist Party is affixed to the state in a way the Communist Party of the Soviet Union never was.