Will US, China avert Cold War II?

Michael Buholzer/Keystone/AP
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan (left) and his delegation leave a hotel in Zurich where they were holding talks on Oct. 6 with top Chinese officials in a bid to iron out differences on a range of topics from trade to Taiwan.
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There’s a lot of talk these days about a new cold war, this time between the United States and China. Beijing accuses Washington of Cold War tactics; President Joe Biden assures the United Nations that he is not seeking a cold war.

One problem is that China does not seem to share President Biden’s vision of an arrangement whereby the two nations could be rivals, even foes, on fundamental economic and political matters, while coexisting and even cooperating on issues of common concern.

Why We Wrote This

There’s plenty of evidence that Cold War II may already have started. But despite heated rhetoric, signs that the U.S. and China may be ready to step on the brakes offer hope.

It’s true that relations between the two juggernauts are unusually prickly. But there are signs that both sides may be ready to step on the brakes.

The U.S. wants to avoid further unsettling a troubled international climate; China needs unhindered access to top-end microchips that it cannot make itself. Both countries are aware of the economic cost of full-on conflict, bound together as they are by half a trillion dollars in annual trade.

It will not be easy to keep relations on an even keel. But the price of letting matters get out of hand is hard to imagine.

Cold War II, it’s being called, and there’s a good deal of evidence that it may already have started.

Yet despite the steepening decline in relations between the United States and China, there are also signs that both countries may be looking for ways to step on the brakes.

That won’t be easy. And there’s no prospect of a return to anything like the engagement and cooperation that bound the two nations at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

Why We Wrote This

There’s plenty of evidence that Cold War II may already have started. But despite heated rhetoric, signs that the U.S. and China may be ready to step on the brakes offer hope.

But the key question remains open. Can the world’s two major powers find a way to be rivals, even foes, on fundamental political and economic issues, while coexisting and even cooperating on world issues where their interests align?

President Joe Biden has insisted there is room for such an arrangement, and the coming weeks and months are likely to provide hints as to whether he is right. But so far the signs have been discouraging, and they are not expected to improve at two major international summits in the next few days – a G-20 meeting of the world’s major economies this weekend, followed by the global climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Climate change has been one of the few subjects about which Beijing and Washington are actually talking, and U.S. envoy John Kerry has argued that China, both as a major power and as the world’s largest carbon emitter, is critical to success. But Beijing’s response has been stark: Mr. Biden’s “conflict with cooperation” formula won’t play here.

In other words, if you want a joint U.S.-China push on climate change, it will cost you. Stop denouncing our policies toward Hong Kong and the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, pull back from public support for Taiwan, and soften the Trump administration’s line on trade.

And while China could still announce new climate targets before Glasgow, that summit’s organizers, and the Italian hosts of the Group of 20, have failed to persuade President Xi Jinping to attend in person. They’ve been left to hope that he will at least check in remotely.

So is Cold War II unavoidable?

There are certainly serious rifts, and they’ve been growing since Mr. Xi ascended to the presidency in 2012 and took a tighter personal grip on power than any leader since Mao Zedong. His vision is of a China ascendant, more authoritarian at home and ambitious overseas, while Western democracies inexorably decline.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a billboard in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Four years after Beijing's brutal crackdown on largely Muslim minorities native to Xinjiang, its behavior there continues to sour relations with Washington.

Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been confined to “reeducation” camps. The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has been crushed, and Beijing has ripped up the “one nation, two systems” pledge it gave when Britain returned its former colony to Chinese rule.

China has also been fortifying islands in the South China Sea and modernizing its armed forces – reportedly testing a hypersonic missile this month.

In Washington, a broadly bipartisan view has emerged that China – once seen mainly as a cheap source of consumer goods for the West – is now a competitive threat on the economic and trade fronts, using unfair state subsidies to develop its high-tech industries.

The Biden administration has made it clear that it will continue to argue for human rights, fairer trade, and the security of democracies in China’s neighborhood. And Washington is naturally keeping a close eye on China’s military buildup – as is NATO.

Still, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg recently echoed President Biden’s contention that areas of cooperation – such as climate change and arms control – could and had to be found.

Will the U.S. and China begin moving in that direction?

Mr. Biden went out of his way, addressing the United Nations last month, to stress that “we are not seeking a new Cold War,” saying that though Washington would “compete vigorously,” he was mindful of the danger that relations could “tip from responsible competition to conflict.”

The U.S. president held his first one-on-one conversation with President Xi by telephone last month. While Mr. Xi balked at an early summit, the leaders did agree to meet by video link before the end of the year.

Both men are also aware of the potential economic price of a full-on Cold War II. U.S.-Soviet trade during Cold War I was negligible, but the U.S. and China are deeply connected by more than half a trillion dollars in annual trade.

From the U.S. perspective, one major advantage of making China a “frenemy” is that it would avoid further unsettling an already turbulent international climate, troubled by the prospect that a cold war could always heat up, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

But China may also have its reasons to dial back hostilities. Economically, despite its meteoric expansion, it still lags in key areas, such as the invention and production of the latest-generation microchips.

And Beijing, too, seems aware of the danger of potential military escalation, or miscalculation.

Though Mr. Xi is on record as predicting that China will eventually “reunite” Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary, he said this month that “peaceful reunification” would be preferable.

And in a sign that Beijing too might want to calm the atmosphere, China responded to Western reports of its hypersonic missile launch by denying it had ever happened, claiming it had merely been testing a reusable space vehicle.

Whatever they did, the Chinese are at least steering clear of potentially incendiary bragging.

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