In the past decade, the world witnessed a swift turning point in Chinese foreign policy. Deng Xiaoping’s mindset of strengthening China internally while staying invisible in international disputes has been replaced by the aggressive jingoism of Xi Jinping.

Collapsing Sino-American relations

With regards to territorial claims; Beijing increased its military presence in the South China Sea, repeatedly clashed with India on the Himalayn border, and became bolder in its attacks on Taiwan. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to place China at the centre of global economic order. Although it isn’t pushing for any domination resembling Stalin’s sphere of influence, it nevertheless dominates where it matters most in our day and age: the systems of data collection and manipulation, such as 5G — which if misused pose genuine security threats.

Trump made a break with Obama’s policy that a strong China would turn an enemy into an ally. The years that followed saw trade-wars over solar panels and washing machines, disinviting the Chinese navy from participating in military exercises, and repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’.

Although it’s safe to assume that Biden will make less erratic decisions, preferring to work multilaterally and diplomatically, the iron hand premise still applies. This much was clear at the Sino-American summit in Anchorage, Alaska; a heated tit-for-tat where Chinese and American values and interests clashed. America accused China of threatening global stability, and China rubbed salt on the wound by spotlighting America’s own human rights abuses — what they called the ‘slaughter of black Americans’.

This exchange solidified a long-brewing notion: the US and China are heading towards a Cold War

A New Cold War?

Although holding up a mirror to a historical period where two superpowers and their ideologies battled is tempting, the only similarity here is the superficial truth that the US and China exist in a league of their own. In order to deal with China successfully, Washington needs to recognize this new era of Sino-American rivalry as something completely unprecedented.

During the Cold War between Russia and America, the world was split neatly into two blocks: Capitalism vs Communism; NATO vs The Warsaw Pact; the West vs the sphere of influence. The Soviet and American economies were completely independent of one another, ideological problems were at the forefront of every discussion, and the prevention of mutual destruction was the only aspect where they showed cooperation.

Today, the dynamics have shifted. America and China walk hand in hand at the centre of the global economy. The US outsources its production to Beijing in search of cheap labour, owing China over 1 trillion in debt. Meanwhile, China, finding an insatiable market for its goods in America’s infamous consumerism, and with nearly all other countries having the two as their leading trade partners, benefits from this simultaneous cooperation and competition. So regardless of how much Beijing differs culturally from the world order established post-Cold War, it has found a comfortable place within its economy. Consequently, China’s goal is not (as was the case with the Soviets) to upend world order in the name of ideology.

But although American-Chinese interdependence makes it unlikely that China will push to engulf other countries under its Communist umbrella, it also stabilizes its current position, making the conflict more complex and with the potential to last much longer than the Cold War did.

No losers — no winners?

The Cold War was a zero-sum game. One ideology would become victorious economically, militarily and socially, sending the other into oblivion. However, this time, the US can’t ruin China without ruining itself. America is forced to share the world stage and accept that a successful economic and transnational system not upheld by liberal pillars can indeed exist.

So whilst it might be tempting for America to reread the Cold War story because it knows the spoilers, it must also realise that on this occasion, victory will simultaneously result in a loss. And while the same goes for China, its creation of a codependent economic and geopolitical system where the US often finds itself powerless in the face of Chinese autocracy and human rights abuses is impressive. The inability of either side to reach full-blown victory is arguably in itself a Chinese victory.

The headline ‘A New Cold War’ is not a harmless piece of hyperbolic journalism. When direct parallels with the past are being drawn, policymakers, intellectuals and politicians may be tempted to side with the US and its outdated policies. What worked in the 20th century, will almost certainly fail in the 21st.

It’s too late to ‘contain’ China or create a military alliance against it. But we also can’t stand with crossed arms while it grows bolder and more ambitious. This calls for a more nuanced response.

Balancing the Obama and Trump approaches

Biden must find a middle ground between Obama’s and Trump’s approaches. That means cooperating when possible, cherry-picking the issues worth fighting over, and dealing with them one at a time.

Obama was naive, thinking he could force China’s hand by incorporating it in the international system — a system it has long exploited. Trump was rash, making the countries into antagonists at the expense of keeping a necessary ally.

Biden needs to cooperate where cooperation is unavoidable. Key policy areas include global warming response and pandemic recovery. Meanwhile, China’s human rights abuses and unfair trading practices must be addressed with the aid of America’s global allies.

Lastly, the US needs to step up. Stabilizing its democracy, getting the pandemic under control, and investing in domestic innovation and technology will be crucial to maintaining the delicate balance of power.

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