Are the United States and China on the brink of a new Cold War? If the question is whether U.S.-China relations are destined to closely replicate the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, then the answer is surely “no.” As Joshua Shifrinson has recently (and rightly) argued, today’s superpowers coexist in an international setting much different from—and more forgiving than—that which existed between 1947 and 1989.
But this hasn’t stopped a broad range of scholars, analysts, and policy practitioners from debating the usefulness of the Cold War analogy, and unearthing a range of discrete, nuanced lessons that can help to shed light on twenty-first century geopolitics. Overall, most analysts seem to agree with Kori Schake, who has noted that even if U.S.-China relations unfold differently to the U.S.-Soviet relationship, the challenges facing U.S. leaders today “bear some interesting resemblances to the [early] Cold War.”
It is reasonable to ask whether China rises to the level of a Soviet-style peer competitor, especially for those analysts with ties to the United States. But it is also useful to consider the Cold War analogy from the Chinese vantage point. Indeed, casting contemporary China in the role of the United States post–1945 is an underexplored application of the Cold War analogy that might offer some insights into Chinese decisionmaking today.
It was Walter Lippman who popularized the phrase “Cold War.” He did so in a series of essays, published as a volume in 1947, that criticized the incipient U.S. grand strategy of containing the Soviet Union in Europe and Southwest Asia.
For Lippmann, the defining feature of U.S.-Soviet relations in the late 1940s was the fact that Moscow occupied the position of a victorious power in Europe, with millions of Red Army soldiers occupying the eastern half of the continent. He astutely observed that the Soviet Union’s position of dominance in Europe (and, indeed, the larger Eurasian landmass) was something that no world power had previously been able to enjoy during peacetime.
It was this status quo—the division of Europe and the seemingly indefinite denial of freedom to those living in the Soviet sphere—that was intolerable to the United States. The situation could not and should not be allowed to endure. Lippmann thus urged that the goal of the United States be to ensure freedom and independence for the countries of Europe.
But the occupation of Western Europe by U.S. forces, which American strategists seemed to be fixed upon during the initial postwar period, would do nothing to promote the freedom of Europe, Lippmann argued. Rather, Europe would only be free if both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to withdraw their militaries. Lippmann cautioned that military competition between the great powers must not be allowed to take place on the soil of third-party countries.
Committing the United States to the permanent occupation of Western Europe would not free Eastern Europe, Lippmann reasoned. As a result, he argued for a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from the continent. He acknowledged that this strategy would not free Eastern Europe either, but at least a U.S. exit from Western Europe would deny Moscow the opportunity to draw equivalence between the superpowers’ foreign policies.
In the event, U.S. leaders rejected Lippmann’s analysis and collectively implemented what became known as “containment,” a wide-ranging grand strategy of combating the Soviet Union in Europe, Asia, and in the so-called Third World. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, China might reasonably look at the United States in East Asia through the same lens that Lippmann viewed the Soviet Union in Europe: as a world power that, as a result of some critical military and political triumphs—namely, victory in World War II and then the Cold War—has come to occupy a near-hegemonic position over a critical region of Eurasia (in this case, the Asia-Pacific region).
Just like the Soviet Union’s privileged geopolitical position in Europe during the late 1940s, the contemporary dominance of the United States in East Asia is something that other regional powers have been able to secure only through the force of arms: Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, the various European empires, and before them the Qing and earlier Chinese imperial dynasties. It is a peacetime military occupation of the region with no end in sight.
Of course, the United States does not hold the countries of East Asia captive like the Soviet Union did those of Eastern Europe. Nor is the United States bent on expansion and empire-building. Its forces are based in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere at the invitation of democratically-elected governments, not illegitimate puppet regimes.
But none of this makes the geostrategic status quo in East Asia tolerable from the Chinese perspective. In some ways, American primacy in the Asia-Pacific region is worse for China today than the Soviet presence in Europe was for the United States. This is because U.S. forces are deployed far closer to China’s borders than the Soviet Union ever came to the contiguous United States: the 35,000 U.S. forces in South Korea, for example, are only 250 miles away from the Yalu River by land, and just 120 miles away from the Shandong Peninsula across the Yellow Sea.
Then there are around forty thousand troops in Japan, the region’s other major military power. The United States maintains strong defensive ties with Taiwan, regarded by Beijing as a renegade province, and repeatedly sends its Navy through Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea. It is widely believed that the United States and its allies could close the Malacca Straits to Chinese shipping during a time of war.
Of course, America’s leaders tend to view the strategy of “deep engagement” in East Asia as an anchor of stability and security in the region. U.S. allies crave strategic reassurance; they regularly lean on the United States to deter Chinese aggression and get nervous whether Washington signals a weakening of its commitments to the region. To withdraw from the Asia-Pacific region would be to plunge the region into a potentially dangerous period of uncertainty and instability, with regional powers scrambling to either balance against or bandwagon with an ever more assertive China.
This may well be the correct way to look at U.S. engagement in East Asia. But it is unreasonable to expect China to view the situation in quite the same light. Just as the United States would not want another world power to be near-hegemonic in the Western Hemisphere—and, indeed, just as the United States could not abide the Soviet Union’s conventional preponderance in Europe during the Cold War—so, too, can China not be expected to live comfortably with U.S. supremacy in East Asia. From China’s view, it is a geopolitical configuration that simply cannot stand.
This helps to explain why Chinese leaders are investing heavily in their country’s military despite “regional anxieties” about Beijing’s militarist trajectory. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the United States to disengage from East Asia, China has resolved that it must be prepared for a potential conflict with the United States or its allies. In short, the prevailing distribution of power assets in East Asia is not one that China can easily tolerate. Ideally, it would be overturned.
The U.S.-Soviet Cold War analyses compiled by Shifrinson and others provide some grounds for hope that the contemporary U.S.-China relationship need not become a global struggle for mastery. There are many reasons to believe that Washington and Beijing will be able to resolve their mutual bones of contention through peaceful—even collaborative—means. But the basic geopolitical predicament that led the United States to adopt a strategy of containment towards the Soviet Union is at least somewhat analogous to the geopolitical predicament that China finds itself in today, which perhaps provides a useful starting point for understanding how Beijing ought to be engaged with.
For now, it remains impossible to know just how the world’s most important bilateral relationship will play out. To anticipate China’s future foreign policy a little better, however, America’s leaders would do well to reflect upon how their own actions form part of Beijing’s calculus.
Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ipeterharris .