May 22, 2018

Beyond Cold War: Paradigms for U.S.-China Strategic Competition

By Elsa B. Kania

Beijing has long called for the United States to abandon what it calls its “Cold War mentality” (冷战思维). Today, that critique, long a staple of official Chinese propaganda, is starting to ring true as the United States once again emphasizes great power rivalry in identifying China as a strategic competitor.55 The notion of a “new Cold War” may be a convenient conceptual framework for the intensifying competition between the United States and China, but Washington should indeed abandon Cold War prescriptions for containing China. At best, such an approach would play directly into the hands of China’s propaganda machine. Instead, the United States must recognize that China’s ambition for what it describes as “national rejuvenation” constitutes a challenge that eclipses the Cold War in both complexity and consequence.

An Unrivaled Challenger

Across all dimensions of national power, China is a far more formidable rival than the Soviet Union or modern Russia. For better and worse, China’s quest for “national rejuvenation” — with ambitions to “regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world” — has already started to shift the world order’s center of gravity.56China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, enabled by its integration into the global economy, has created both positive dividends and negative externalities for the United States and the world. Its quest to become a “superpower” in science and technology could enable China to emerge as a new center of innovation, including in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies. Meanwhile, the Chinese military is pursuing rapid modernization and defense innovations that could offset — rather than match, as the Soviet military did — America’s current military-technological advantage in the Pacific and beyond.


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