Trump can’t start a Cold War with China, even if he wants to


Yan Xuetong is considered one of China’s top strategic thinkers. He is dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University and author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.”

BEIJING — In his State of the Union speech, U.S. President Donald Trump defined China as the primary rival challenging America. This is consistent with the tone of the new U.S. National Defense Strategy, which declares: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

Along with Russia, China was named as the chief strategic rival challenging America’s security, prosperity and values. This rhetoric, backed up by formal doctrine, understandably brings about fears that Sino-U.S. competition may drive the world into a new Cold War. Yet, while America’s new policy toward China will inevitably have a strong impact on international politics, it does not necessarily mean a coming Cold War. There are three fundamental differences between the Sino-U.S. competition today and the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War.

1. Unlike the U.S.-Soviet competition for global leadership during the Cold War, both China and the U.S. today avoid undertaking excessive international responsibility.

The Trump administration’s “America First” posture regards global leadership as a burden rather than the most important strategic interest of the U.S. It seeks to unload that burden onto its military allies by asking them to pay more for their own defense. Meanwhile, the current Chinese government worries that the huge cost of global leadership would undermine its economic growth.

Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping has inherited and embraced the concept of a “community of common destiny,” coined by former President Hu Jintao’s administration. As the phrase implies, China wants every member of the international community to share the responsibility of global governance. To avoid excessive international responsibility, the Chinese government avoids stationing troops in Afghanistan, for example, even though instability there presents a direct threat to the security of neighboring Xinjiang, a frontier region in China where separatist sentiment has erupted in the past.

As long as both China and the U.S. are reluctant to undertake global leadership, a Cold War of the all-encompassing kind we saw between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century is unlikely to occur — even with the possibility that some secondary powers may compete for regional leadership through military confrontation.

2. Both China and the U.S. have so far purposely constrained their competition from spilling over into the ideological domain — the precise opposite of what the U.S. and the Soviets did during the Cold War.

Trump has shown no interest in an ideological contest with China. This was reflected in the National Defense Strategy, which contains the statement, “We will not seek to impose our way of life by force.”

The Chinese government is similarly alert to the danger of igniting an ideological confrontation with the West and the U.S. in particular. Soon after the international media reported that the recent 19th Communist Party Congress revealed China’s intention to export a governance model that rivals Western democracy, the Chinese government promptly sought to correct this misimpression by announcing that China “will not ask other countries to copy the Chinese practice.” As long as China and the U.S. don’t prioritize advancing their ideologies abroad above all else, their competition will not escalate to the level of the old U.S.-Soviet rivalry.

3. China’s present strategic preference for peaceful competition with the U.S. differs greatly from that of the Soviet Union or Russia today.

Although China is dismayed and disappointed at being viewed as the primary rival to the U.S. after giving Trump emperor-like treatment during his visit to Beijing, it still adheres to the principle of peaceful competition rather than the proxy-war strategy the Soviet Union adopted during the Cold War.

Economics remains the most powerful element of China’s national strength, and its military might lags far behind America’s. Thus, China will try its best to avoid any form of military clashes with the U.S. China also insists it is not formally allied with Russia, America’s other rival, which has been confronting the U.S. order in Europe mainly through proxy wars since the end of the Cold War. It should not go unrecognized that wars in the Middle East and former Soviet zones have not escalated to the global level, in no small part because China did not join Russia. China’s behavior in these situations shows that China will not join league with Russia against the U.S., as happened with the East-West division during the Cold War.

The uncertainty of Trump’s leadership is also a minor but favorable factor in preventing a new Cold War. The inconsistency of America’s foreign policy in the first year of his presidency has made its allies cautious in supporting America’s confrontation with China.

To be sure, China-U.S. competition will inevitably grow more severe in 2018. At the moment, China appears to have more confidence than the U.S. in this competition because it believes the Trump administration suffers from a crippling lack of credibility both at home and abroad. The most crucial factor in international competition between superpowers is strategic credibility.

At Davos late last month, Trump delivered a standard and sober political speech that departed from the tone of his previous talks or tweets. Yet it did little, if anything, to improve America’s reputation. This implies that the Trump administration has already — perhaps terminally — undermined its capacity to shape international opinions and regain strategic credibility. If that is the case, how can it initiate a new Cold War even if it wants to?

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.