Forum: A Cold War With China?

The New York Times’ Room for Debate forum asks a panel of experts whether recent flashpoints in Sino-U.S. relations, including the escape of Chen Guangcheng and diplomatic brinksmanship in the South China Sea, indicate an imminent cold war between the two sides. Beijing University’s Zhu Feng writes that despite the “ominous” events surrounding the relationship in recent months, there is “little worry” that a larger conflict will emerge:

First of all, China’s authoritarian system has been tremendously mobilized for international integration. Beijing has been pretty conservative and doesn’t welcome democratization. But it does not strictly adhere to traditional communism either. Any new confrontation like the cold war would risk a huge backlash in China by greatly damaging the better-off Chinese people. Such a conflict could ultimately undermine the Communist Party’s ruling legitimacy.

Second, the power disparity between Washington and China hasn’t significantly narrowed, regardless of Chinese achievements in the past decades. My view is that Beijing remains an adolescent power, and should learn how to be a great power rather than unwisely rushing to any confrontation. Though some Chinese want the nation to assert itself more forcefully, the huge disparity in power should keep China in place. China is in no position to challenge the U.S. But China will be more enthusiastic and straightfoward about addressing and safeguarding its legal interests. Competition between Washington and Beijing will intensify, but that does not automatically mean that the relationship will be unmanageable.

Lastly, the cycle of action and reaction has mostly turned out to be fruitful for the U.S. and China. Further competition is promising. The U.S. doesn’t want to put China in a corner, or force Beijing to stand up desperately. The dealings over many thorny issues have proved that each side wants to handle the conflict, not escalate it. Chen Guangcheng’s departure from the U.S. Embassy is telling evidence. Neither side wants diplomatic confrontation. Rather, it seems that both sides are struggling to react constructively.

Dan Blumenthal writes that “it will be old-fashioned deterrence by the U.S. that will keep the peace between these great powers,” and Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt argues that the likelihood of “intense security competition” between the two sides will grow as China’s economy rises but that “Sino-American economic ties give both sides ample reason to keep the rivalry within bounds.” Bonnie S. Glaser touches on the economic angle as well, suggesting that China’s “assertive behaviors” in the South China Sea and elsewhere reflect a belief that the U.S. economy is in decline, and a reversal of that decline would help to “bolster regional confidence” in the longevity of the U.S. presence in Asia.

American political activist and writer Tom Hayden, on the other hand, claims that a scenario of confrontation isn’t as far-fetched. With the U.S. deploying nearly 100,000 military personnel in the region as part of the “Pacific Century” strategy detailed last year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he says, it’s no wonder China’s top defense spokesman believes a new cold war has already arrived:

Are we blindly solipsistic by nature, or is it once again a reputational anxiety about appearing “soft”? Does the phrase “post-cold war” make some people feel adrift? By comparison, what if China deployed close-combat vessels and 100,000 troops on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts to protect its access to the sea lanes of the Americas?