Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War

| June 30, 2020

The left says it's U.S. arrogance. The right says it's Chinese malevolence. Both are wrong.

The United States is pretty polarized these days, but nearly everyone seems to agree that China is a big problem. The Trump administration has been at odds with China on trade issues since day one, and its 2017 National Security Strategy labeled China a "revisionist power" and major strategic rival. (President Donald Trump himself seems to have been willing to give Beijing a free pass if it would help him get reelected, but that's just a sign of his own venality and inconsistent with the administration's other policies.) Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden may have started his campaign in 2019 downplaying fears that China was going to "eat our lunch," but his campaign has grown increasingly hawkish over time.

Not surprisingly, hard-line Republican members of Congress like Josh Hawley and Matt Gaetz have been sounding the alarm as well, while progressives and moderates warn of a "new cold war" and call for renewed dialogue to manage the relationship. Despite their differing prescriptions, all of these groups see the state of Sino-American relations as of vital importance.

 Unfortunately, discussion of the Sino-American rivalry is also succumbing to a familiar tendency to attribute conflict to our opponents' internal characteristics: their ruling ideology, domestic institutions, or the personalities of particular leaders. This tendency has a long history in the United States: The country entered World War I in order to defeat German militarism and make the world safe for democracy, and later it fought World War II to defeat fascism. At the dawn of the Cold War, George Kennan's infamous "X" article ("The Sources of Soviet Conduct") argued that Moscow had a relentless and internally motivated urge to expand, driven by the need for foreign enemies to justify the Communist Party's authoritarian rule. Appeasement would not work, he argued, and the only choice was to contain the Soviet Union until its internal system "mellowed." More recently, U.S. leaders blamed America's problems with Iraq on Saddam Hussein's recklessly evil ambitions and portrayed Iran's leaders as irrational religious fanatics whose foreign-policy behavior is driven solely by ideological beliefs.

In all of these conflicts, trouble arose from the basic nature of these adversaries, not from the circumstances they found themselves in or the inherently competitive nature of international politics itself....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen.“Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War.” Foreign Policy, June 30, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt