THE UNITED States and China are locked in a fierce blame shifting battle to control the narrative of the coronavirus pandemic. But this contest for public diplomacy and soft power dominance is a symptom, not the cause, of the deepening hostility between Washington and Beijing. Over the summer, Sino-American tensions boiled over as the United States ramped up its campaign against Chinese telecom giant Huawei; slapped sanctions on China in response both to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and human rights abuses committed against China’s Muslim Uighur population; formally rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; and shuttered China’s consulate in Houston, TX for alledgedly serving as a base for Chinese espionage against the United States. At the same time, in a series of high-level speeches—capped off by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—the Trump administration escalated its anti-China rhetoric.
Two powerful forces are shaping the future of Sino-American relations: geopolitics—in the form of power transition dynamics—and America’s liberal ideology. If managed—guided by the tenets of realpolitik and classical statecraft—it is possible to keep even intense great power competitions from tipping over the precipice into war. However, a coterie of China hawks threatens to recast Sino-American relations as something quite different: a Second Cold War that is fast becoming an all-out ideological struggle reminiscent of the First Cold War that the United States waged with the Soviet Union. Unlike the First Cold War, however, there is a high probability the Sino-American Cold War will culminate in a real—hot—war.
Washington is coming to view the Sino-American rivalry through the lens of ideology—American Liberalism vs. Chinese Communism—rather than as a traditional great power rivalry. When ideology is inserted into the equation, it is all too easy to demonize one’s rival. Once that happens, it is difficult to employ diplomacy to adjust differences, because compromising with an “evil” state would be “appeasement.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Sino-American relations were spiraling downward. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has initiated a trade war with China, and intensified the high-tech competition with Beijing by trying to cripple leading Chinese firms (especially Huawei, the leader in 5G technology). In the realm of geopolitics, the administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy declared that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition” between the United States and China “[has] returned.”
THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic has accelerated the fraying of Sino-American relations, which have gone from bad to worse. According to a March 2020 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, two thirds of Americans have a negative view of China. Trying to deflect attention from its own bungled response to the pandemic, the Trump administration has tapped into this anti-China sentiment by blaming Beijing for coronavirus, and for covering up the seriousness of the disease’s outbreak in Wuhan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged—without providing any factual basis—that “there’s enormous evidence” that the coronavirus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Trump himself has insinuated that China deliberately released the coronavirus in order to sabotage his reelection prospects by damaging the U.S. economy. Although the administration is pressuring U.S. intelligence to back up Trump’s and Pompeo’s claims, they remain uncorroborated.
The Pentagon is leveraging the pandemic to request additional funds to counter Chinese military power. With respect to trade policy, the administration is using the pandemic to call for “re-shoring” manufacturing jobs from China back to the United States, and also is pushing American firms to reorient their supply chains away from China. The Trump administration already has taken some retaliatory measures against Beijing, including: curbing U.S. semiconductor sales to China; limiting the use of Chinese equipment in the U.S. power grid; limiting investments in China by the Thrift Saving Plan, a retirement and savings program for federal employees; and banning China Telecom from American telecommunications networks. And Trump and his senior advisors reportedly are looking for ways to compel China to compensate Washington financially—i.e. “reparations”—for the damage to the U.S. economy caused by the pandemic. Ideas that have been floated for this are withholding interest payments to Beijing on its holdings of U.S. Treasury bills, and repealing China’s sovereign immunity so that it can be sued in American courts to recover economic damages caused by the pandemic. Pursuing the former would risk the dollar’s standing as the international system’s reserve currency, and the latter would run afoul of one of international law’s foundational principles.
The pandemic also is impacting American domestic politics—in ways that will affect U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s reelection strategy aims at exploiting growing anti-China sentiment in the United States by pinning responsibility for the pandemic on China, and attacking former Vice President Joseph Biden (the Democratic presidential nominee) as being “soft” on China. In Congressional races, Republican candidates are being advised to follow a similar approach: blaming Beijing for the coronavirus crisis and the massive economic dislocation it has caused in the United States. As the New York Times has reported, “Republicans increasingly believe that elevating China as an archenemy culpable for the spread of the virus, and harnessing America’s growing animosity toward Beijing, may be the best way to salvage a difficult election.” The gop’s emerging stars—Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and former un ambassador Nikki Haley—are vying with each other to stake out uber-hawkish positions on China, and playing up the idea that the United States is locked in an ideological struggle with Communist China.
Whether China bashing is the path to electoral victory for Trump and the Republicans remains to be seen. However, this domestic political strategy is stoking the Second Cold War, talk of which already was commonplace in Washington well before the pandemic’s outbreak. It began shortly after Trump took office and steadily has grown in both volume and vehemence. In a July 2019 column, the Financial Times’ Edward Luce—a keen observer of American politics—confessed that “The speed with which US political leaders of all stripes have united behind the idea of a ‘new cold war’ is something that takes my breath away.” As Luce observed, less than two years ago the notion that the United States and China were locked in a new Cold War was dismissed as “fringe scaremongering.” But now, he says, “it is consensus.”
OF COURSE, from the American standpoint, great power rivalry with China, and the Second Cold War, should not be happening. When the First Cold War ended with the Berlin Wall’s fall (1989), and the Soviet Union’s implosion (1991), U.S. policymakers, foreign policy analysts, and pundits believed these events heralded the “end of history”—the final triumph of America’s liberal democratic/capitalist ideology. Similarly, Charles Krauthammer announced America’s “unipolar moment”—which in 2001 he amended to the unipolar era—which, perforce, meant the end of great power politics. In the First Cold War’s wake, American policymakers, and many security studies scholars, believed that a one superpower world would be long-lasting—“durable” and sustainable. Many of them still do. It is unsurprising, therefore, that since the First Cold War’s end, preserving America’s preponderant power—“primacy” has become the accepted code word—has been the overriding grand strategic goal of each administration beginning with that of George H.W. Bush. For the American foreign policy establishment this is not a commitment to an abstract theory of “unipolar politics” propounded by international relations scholars. Rather, it reflects their preference for a unipolar world in which the United States is the “uni.”
With respect to China, after the First Cold War, a broad and bipartisan swath of the American foreign policy establishment harbored high hopes for future relations. They subscribed to the notion that China’s rise would be peaceful, and believed that, after its admission to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, China would liberalize—politically as well as economically. Rather than being conflictive, the Sino-American relationship—“Chimerica,” as some dubbed it—would be one of mutually beneficial cooperation. This would take place within the framework of the post-World War II, liberal, rules-based international order, with Beijing playing the role of America’s junior partner (or, as then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick put it, “a responsible stakeholder”). Even a risen China, it was believed, would accept the liberal rules-based international order rather than overthrowing it and replacing it with a more Sino-centric international order.
It should have been apparent even in the early 1990s that these beliefs—about the permanence of America’s ideological victory, the nature of U.S. power, and China’s geopolitical aspirations—rested on a flimsy intellectual foundation. The ballyhooed post-Cold War peace turned out to be a peace of illusions. Notwithstanding the American foreign policy establishment’s professed commitment to U.S. primacy, there is today an obvious cognitive dissonance in elite thinking: it’s hard to square claims of continuing American primacy with China’s emergence as a great power. Outward expressions of confidence in American primacy mask unacknowledged inner doubts about the changing balance of power. For example, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia was an (at least) implicit recognition of China’s rise, and the shifting balance of power in East Asia. The same can be said of the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy. Similarly, the febrile Sino-American Cold War rhetoric sweeping Washington is difficult to reconcile with assertions of continuing U.S. geopolitical supremacy. The now fashionable contention that great power politics has “returned”—with Sino-American relations as the catalyst—clashes with the claim emanating from U.S. policy and academic circles that the international system remains unipolar. After all, great power politics can only “return” if there is more than one great power.