Is the United States deliberately trying to contain China's expansion? Does China regard the US as an obstacle to its rightful return to pre-eminence? Does the resulting clash of policies amount to a dangerous new Cold War?
Neo-Cold War rhetoric has been bandied about by both sides. Vice President Mike Pence's October 2018 speech setting out the Trump Administration's new China policy has been compared by historian Walter Russell Mead to Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of 1946. In Beijing, organs of the Government and the Communist Party have likened Trump's tariffs and US Navy patrols in the South China Sea to a deliberate attempt to "contain" China from recovering its centrality after its "Century of Humiliation" at the hands of the imperial powers.
However, the current relationship between the US and China is substantially different from that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War 1948-1990. This is because:
· There is in the Asia-Pacific no equivalent of the armed confrontation of the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances
· There is no equivalent of a divided Germany inasmuch as North Korea is not garrisoned by China's forces and Taiwan is not garrisoned by US forces
· There is no equivalent of an "iron curtain" with the possible exception of the Korean DMZ
· There is no equivalent of the almost self-contained Soviet economic bloc that was centred on Russia. The US and China's economies are not only global in reach, overlapping in many markets, but also deeply intertwined with each other.
· Although each side has its preferred partners, neither side is fomenting a proxy war against the other as Russia is doing in Ukraine
· There is no nuclear or conventional arms race in which each government explicitly tries to match, or to target, the other.
It is true that some US commentators and analysts of the alt-right have employed Cold War and containment rhetoric. But no recent past or current US leader has used this rhetoric. Although US leaders direct much criticism at specific policies pursued by China, and call for strengthened US policies in response, the terms "Cold War" and "containment" are absent from President Trump's US National Security Strategy document of December 2017, Vice President Mike Pence's "China speech" of October 2018, and the Department of State's and US Trade Representative's website pages on US-China relations.
In fact, here's what Mike Pence said last October: "We don't want China's markets to suffer. In fact, we want them to thrive." He went on to assert "we seek a relationship grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty".
It is my view that the employment by both sides of the "containment" theme is fuelled by political expediency. Chauvinists on the China side can build political support by accusing the US of seeking to restrain China's rightful growth trajectory and blame economic ills on that US policy. They can portray themselves as victims and the US as the aggressor, which plays well in an atmosphere of rising nationalism.
Chauvinists on the US side can build political support by accusing China of breaking WTO rules and stealing US intellectual property and jobs, thus justifying harsh US counter-policies. These US counter-policies in turn are easily framed in China as "containment" and justify more ambitious global outreach by China to "break out" of the alleged "containment". China's First and Second Island Chain power projection proposals, militarised artificial island construction in the South China Sea, increased pressure on Taiwan, and even the Road and Belt Initiative can be legitimised in China by the "break-out" narrative.
However, promiscuous use of the terms "new Cold War" and "containment" by secondary commentators and netizens on both sides is inaccurate, exaggerated, politically driven, tendentious, provocative, and ultimately counterproductive and dangerous. It fuels the worst tendencies of hyper-nationalism.
We in academia respect fact-based analysis. Let me present some facts to moderate the containment rhetoric.
a) US warships continue to be invited to visit China's ports and Chinese warships continue to visit US ports.
b) Numerous military exchanges, joint exercises, and pragmatic agreements on maritime safety and avoidance of unintended clashes at sea constitute a voluntary cooperation regime.
c) Extensive bilateral trade, investment, tourism, and student, academic, and cultural interchanges continue almost unabated despite the US tariffs, and Trump as postponed the latest round of tariffs.
d) The two governments' diplomats continue to serve in each other's capitals. The top leaders meet periodically in at international meetings and the annual dialogues. And the two presidents appear to get along with each other personally.
e) Almost no Asia-Pacific government save North Korea has adopted the containment rhetoric, and all have avoided unconditionally lining up with either the US or the China side. No new alliances have been concluded, or substantially strengthened, in the last decade by either side. Warming US relations with Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, India and Vietnam have not created a new US "camp" because each partner has asserted an independent foreign and security policy. The same can be said of China: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and friendship agreements with Russia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Philippines are consultative and non-binding.
I concur that China is a serious "strategic competitor" of the US. I acknowledge that President Xi has called for "multipolarity" and a "new model of great power relations", both of which imply China's equality with the US. But I find little evidence that China has a grand plan to drive the US out of Asia in the near future and even less evidence that China wishes to take over America's global hegemonic role. To the contrary, China is well advised to continue prospering within the framework of US hegemonic stability without paying its costs. This is China's eminently rational, economical and effective strategy.
Prudent analysts and policy-makers in Washington will recognise the necessity to share resources, markets, status, and prerogatives with a rising China. US strategy is not, and should not be, to oppose the rise of China but rather to reform US domestic and international policies to keep ahead of China while maintaining a stable rules-based international order in which both can progress.
Falling back on the seductive notion of containing China can only distract from the economic reforms urgently needed in the US. It will also prove ineffective. Worse, a policy of containment may provoke military conflict that will retard the economic progress of both great powers… and probably the rest of the world too.
* Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at The Unversity of Auckland.