Are we on the Brink of a New Cold War? U.S. – China Relations in a New Century



Author: Juan A. Ospino, International Relations and Political Sciences student, Florida International University Honors College. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent positions of any institution.

If history has taught us anything, it is that all empires eventually fall. Today we are entering into a very significant moment in history. After three decades of undisputed American hegemony, China is quickly reclaiming a regional status it had lost hundreds of years ago. In the meantime, the U.S. is shifting its attention away from the warring Middle East, towards East Asia. This, some scholars argue, is the beginning of a major geostrategic engagement between the two giants. But, can the U.S.–China relations really be described with a zero-sum game? Is this the beginning of the end of the American hegemony? Or is the world of today ready for pacific bipolarism? Well, one thing is for sure; there’s never been a time in which the two sides of the equation were so interdependent. China and the United States are like two giants tied to one another.

Are we on the Brink of a New Cold War?

 Dr. Noah Feldman from Harvard University tries to encapsulate some of the key points of this discussion in his new book, “The Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.” Dr. Feldman writes: “The term Cool War aims to capture two different, contradictory historical developments that are taking place simultaneously: A classic struggle for power between two countries is unfolding at the same time that economic cooperation between them is becoming deeper and more fundamental.”[1]  The current situation differs from past conflicts, because the two main actors are economically tied to each other. Half of China’s economy depends on export trade of which twenty-five percent accounts to the United States alone. On the other hand, the Chinese government owns around $1.2 trillion of the total U.S. debt, meaning that it is its third largest creditor, only behind the Federal Reserve and the Social Security Fund. Japan comes in fourth.

So, are we on the brink of a new cold war? On one side, the United States and China really find themselves on the starting line of a global race. This time around, the players’ economic fate seems to be tied on the same direction, requiring a great degree of mutual cooperation. However, geostrategic conflict is expected, and the Pacific region is the place where the quest for alliances begins. During the first decade of the new century, U.S. foreign policy main focus was democracy in the Islamic nations. But even President Obama himself has declared that the threat of terrorism has diminished. Today, the focus of U.S. foreign affairs is changing, and for most visional politicians, attention is already shifting to China.

The Game of Alliances

 figure 1

Figure 1. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

ASEAN (Blue)

ASEAN Plus Three (Red)

ASEAN Plus Six (Green)

Observer (Orange)

Non-members (Grey)

China has become the largest trader with the Pacific nations. Furthermore, by the end of 2012, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have started to work together on the “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.” This partnership naturally does not plan to include the United States. American officials have quickly noted this change of geostrategic balance, and are responding with initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Senator McCain’s “League of Democracies,” which in contrast, plan to exclude China. In the Cold War, the giants mostly pursued military alliances, such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Conversely, in today’s world, the contenders are not only interested in military alliances, but also in economic pacts that exclude their counterparts.

 Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPSEP)

 Currently in Negotiations (Dark Green)

Announced Interest in Membership (Light Green)

Uninvited/Non-members (Grey)

On the military side, the U.S. presence in the Pacific countries is a major flashpoint for disagreement between the two nations. The United States provides military support to its long-standing allies, particularly Japan and South Korea. Nonetheless, China has a great advantage when it comes to creating allies. This follows from the Chinese ideology of non-interference with the domestic issues of sovereign states, a lesson China had learned during the Sino-Indian war. The “Panchsheel Treaty” of 1954 states the following principles for peaceful co-existence:

1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,

 2. Mutual non-aggression,

 3. Mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,

 4. Equality and mutual benefit, and

 5. Peaceful co-existence.

Ever since 1954, the Chinese government has maintained a position of non-interference with the domestic human right issues of others. In other words, China sees no problem in having good relations with countries that dismiss human rights norms. Good examples are Syria, North Korea and Iran. In the near future, China and Russia could also develop a very important alliance. Such a partnership could bring significant changes in the balance of power in the Pacific region.

The Military Race and Taiwan

The Chinese defense budget has grown steadily by more than 10 percent every year. Preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait appears to remain the principal focus and primary driver of China’s military investment.[2] In September of 2012, China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (16) was finally commissioned. Chinese officials have announced more of them are on the way. They are also testing a new stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones. Recently, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman announced plans to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering multiple warheads –and capable of evading the U.S missile shield— China is also working on submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could get around the U.S. Air Force Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.

 Figure 2

Figure 2. World’s Military Spending in Year 2012

Some scholars use this evidence to support that both nations already find themselves in a game of military deterrence. Beijing’s long-term strategy is to build up a military strong enough that it doesn’t need to use it. Perhaps, the most volatile issue that could evolve into military involvement in the Pacific region is Taiwan. The Chinese offer is “one state, two systems,” and Taipei does not precisely welcome the idea. This issue poses a hypothetical dilemma to the United States. That is, how to respond if things get ugly between Taiwan and China? To hold back and abandon Taiwan in such a situation would mean compromising the U.S. superpower status in the region. In Feldman’s words “the end of U.S. military hegemony in Asia.”[3]

Perhaps, the Taiwan issue will define the future of China’s global military status. If China plays its cards well, it could easily become the future Asian military hegemon. American politicians are highly unlikely to intervene for Taiwan at this point, especially after the war on terrorism has almost completed its course and there is huge domestic resistance against the idea of another war. Furthermore, if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) happens to overtake Taiwan by force, there will be little doubt in the international atmosphere that the U.S. lacks both military power and will to contain China. This would be a hard-to-miss opportunity for Chinese leaders, as it would assert to the world that they have become Asia’s most powerful nation.

Asian Regional Hegemon

Military hegemony in Asia is a very important status, for any nation. Asia is the largest and most populous continent in the world, and it also contains half of its economy. Perhaps if China were to gain such status, would mean global parity with the United States. Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor of Singapore and one of the most influential political figures in Asia, made the following statements on a 2009 speech: “China will continue growing several times faster than the United States and other Western competitors for the next decade, and probably for several more. China’s leaders are serious about becoming the top power in Asia and on the globe. China will not simply take its seat within the postwar order created by the United States. It is China’s intention to become the greatest power in the world.”[4].

 Figure 3

 Figure 3. Map of Countries by GDP in U.S.$ (nominal)

 Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has recently stated that Kuan Yew is probably the best person to answer any question about Chinese intentions for the future. In his book “On China” (2011), The American statesman points out how China has its own sense of manifest destiny, just like the United States. Kissinger mentions: Each country has a sense of manifest destiny, but American exceptionalism is missionary, it holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural: China does not proselytize or claim that its institutions are relevant outside China, yet it tends to grade all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms.”[5] [Emphasis added].

* * *

Chinas Grand Strategy

Although Mr. Kissinger correctly points the importance of Kuan’s opinion, he is not entirely right about China’s actual “grand strategy”. The Chinese “grand strategy” is not only cultural, but also to a certain extent political. Additionally, the fact that it is cultural doesn’t mean it’s not intended to be spread across externally. Some other scholars support this view, claiming that China does have somewhat of its own expansionist “manifest destiny”. This group of scholars agrees that the PRC is pursuing a defined civilizational “grand strategy.” Most of them seem to agree that this is Confucianism. Currently, the People’s Republic of China is globally promoting Confucian institutes.

These seek to foster the ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the famous Chinese philosopher of government. From the Han up until the PRC, Confucianism has persisted in China for centuries. Historically, different countries and cultures in the Pacific region have been strongly influenced by Confucian beliefs. The ideology promotes the values of family, denies the existence of “divine law”, and exalts the potential of humans to be teachable, improvable and perfectible. It also seeks to cultivate human virtues and maintain ethics.

Dr. Feldman of Harvard University says: “In the same way that the United States is proud of democracy and its global spread, China has its own rich civilizational ideal, Confucianism” he goes on to say, “And Confucianism still plays a meaningful part in the thinking of at least 1.7 billion people. The Chinese public is deeply nationalist, which matters to China’s unelected political leadership as much as U.S. nationalism does to American politicians. As China becomes the world’s largest economy, there is meaningful public pressure for its power status to advance in parallel. Any alternative would be humiliating. And as all Chinese know, the country has suffered its fair share of humiliation in the last two centuries”. Professor Feldman assures that “Beijing’s long-term geopolitical interest lies in removing the United States from the position of sole global superpower.”[6]

But some scholars like Dr. Robert G. Sutter argue even against the existence of such a “grand strategy,” favoring the vision of a nation struggling to dominate its own domestic pressures before it can start to think in becoming a superpower.[7] Therefore, it is clear that there are two very opposite schools of thought in this regard. There is disagreement in China about whether or not the country’s leaders have a “grand strategy”, and Chinese nationals are particularly less optimistic about this. But what if Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Feldman are right, and the PRC leadership does intend to remove America from its current global status?

 The Global Balance of Power

Furthermore, how should the United States react to these clear signs? Usually, an increase of the international power of a nation comes with the subsequent decrease in power of another, and as of today, there is a certain level of consensus that America has lost a bit of its share of influential power. From a strictly “realistic” approach to international relations, China’s economic growth along with America’s minimal but yet noticeable decline, would suggest that the U.S. should either surrender to the challenging nation, or prepare for a new cold war. However, from the lens of liberalism, this is probably the worst thing the U.S. could do.

Arguing for mutual cooperation between the U.S and China, Mr. Kissinger claims that such a relationship is “essential to global stability and peace,” moreover, saying that a new cold war “would arrest progress of both sides of the Pacific and spread disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when global issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy security and climate change impose global cooperation.”[8] The former American statesman asks for both nations to keep cooperating with each other, as they should. The United States should spend more time learning from Chinese history and also understanding how to deal with the peaceful rising power. Meanwhile, China, should take lessons from past rising powers, like Russia, Germany and Japan, so as to avoid their mistakes.

 Authoritarian China

American politicians need also be aware of the evolution of the Chinese way of government. Ever since Deng Xiaoping introduced the “Special Economic Zones” China has been driven by the diversified economy of the modern world. This has had tremendous implications inside of China’s political structures. Thus Chinese leaders insistence on “socialism with Chinese characteristics” —their way of excusing flexible economic policies as the “primary stage” of socialism—, and how this has helped them in becoming an industrialized nation. In other words, China owes its huge economy to Deng’s legacy. Had he not opened the country to western investment, we would not be talking about China being close to surpassing America as the world’s largest economy.

The People’s Republic of China may be an authoritarian form of government, but it is not a dictatorship, and its communist days are certainly long past. This is the reason why future Chinese leaders should also be –and must be— very aware that isolation will be a highway to continuous decline. Throughout Chinese history, it can be clearly seen how attempts to economic isolation have always come with crises, from the Qing dynasty up until Mao Zedong’s times. All of these are favorable factors that the United States could use to maintain a good relationship with the PRC, and vice-versa.

Economic Interdependence

The core of the argument that America and China need to avoid geostrategic conflict lies in the fate of their economies. The United States clearly would like a better distribution of its national debt, and for that matter, China would definitely prefer to depend less on American trade and fortify its domestic market. But that scenario —and maybe fortunately for everyone— won’t be the case in the foreseeable future. The U.S.-China relations are still going to be those of two interdependent powers, and they will remain the same for quite a while. The future Asian hegemon will still need America to keep purchasing its goods, and the U.S. will still need to borrow from China to maintain its budget stabilized. This interdependence is a new phenomenon that was never present in the U.S.-Soviet relations.

* * *

  Figure 4

Figure 4. United States National Debt Holders

 During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other with profound economic and political differences. But in the world of today, the ideological gap between the dominant power and its rising challenger seems to be more political than economic. As China continues to grow to become the world’s largest economy, it will have to face several challenges. The Asian giant will need to continue adapting its way of government to foster further economic expansion, civil rights, environmental protections, and many other sociological issues that continue to be the reason why intellectuals claim that “they still have long way to the top.”

China’s Challenges

Dr. Robert Sutter, Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University, defines some of the most important obstacles that the PRC faces before it can become a superpower in parity with the United States. In his book, “Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War” he mentions issues such as domestic problems, nationalism, and security concerns. These are all matters that continue to impede a broader Chinese influence in global affairs, and all Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping have dealt with these obstacles. This is probably the reason why they have pursued a “camouflaged” strategy and tried to maintain a relative “low profile.”

Deng Xiaoping’s statements during June of 1989 illustrate the “camouflaged” strategy point, and add up to the foreign belief of China’s true intention for the future.  Mr. Deng’s remarks were “adopt a sober perspective; maintain a stable posture; be composed; conserve your strength and conceal your resources; don’t aspire to be the head; do something eventually.”[9] China’s pursuit of strong economic reforms have brought steady economic growth, but it still needs to work a lot more on its social issues. A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system that also happens to possess a stable domestic system in which its citizens have access to certain benefits and privileges. In other words, if Chinese leaders are serious about China becoming a superpower, they will have to make the country look more like a “land of opportunities.”

The current President of China, Mr. Xi Jinping, wants to address some of these difficulties with a renewed campaign against corruption, continued market economic reforms, an open approach to governance, and a comprehensive national renewal under the neologism “Chinese Dream.” But, will that be enough? Two of China’s most acclaimed economic analysts, Dr. Hu Angang and Dr. Men Honghua have come up with a list of six recommendations that the Chinese leadership must consider on the road to international success:

 1.  Intensify investment in human capital to maintain economic growth and continue to climb in international power rankings. China must boost workforce quality, improve general citizen education and health, reduce absolute poverty and so forth.

 2. Develop new energy sources and renewable energy… and fully utilize internationally available strategic resources based on market mechanism and environmental-friendly sustainable development model.

 3.  Increase the efficiency of capital utilization.

4.   Improve the efficiency of the taxation system and increase net government extraction from the economy.

5.   Raise sharply the percentage of defense spending in GDP to enhance the defense capabilities.

 6.  Increase China’s ideational power, stressing international institutions, international prestige, cultural influence, and other soft factors.[10]

But of course, it is always easier to enumerate solutions than to implement them into reality. That’s where the PRC leaders have it a little more difficult than Dr. Hu and Men. Nevertheless, all of their points seem to be about right. Human quality investment, efficient taxation, renewable energy strategies, and stress on China’s ideational power to generate more recognition and prestige are the ways to go. Progress on all of these important fronts is likely to define Chinese development in the years to come. On the international arena, a healthy relationship with the developing world and the United States are also going to be key defining points.

As of today, the United States considers China to be a “friendly’ non-allied country —an adversary as a competitor but a partner in some other areas— that maintains generable stable relations with the U.S. Government. Many leaders describe the Sino-American relationship as the world’s most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. But issues such as cyber-warfare and illegal mass surveillance have the potential to undermine good diplomacy. During a recent diplomatic meeting, President Xi Jinping decided to sidestep a question from a reporter about whether China was complicit in the hacking of America’s systems. So far both presidents have maintained a calm tone about this.


The New York Times published an article on July 2013 that reads: “America’s research universities, among the most open and robust centers of information exchange in the world, are increasingly coming under cyber-attack, most of it thought to be from China, with millions of hacking attempts weekly. Campuses are being forced to tighten security, constrict their culture of openness and try to determine what has been stolen.”[11] Two months later, another article was published on the same issue, “For almost two years, hackers based in Shanghai went after one foreign defense contractor after another, at least 20 in all. Their target, according to an American cyber-security company that monitored the attacks, was the technology behind the United States’ clear lead in military drones.”[12]

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials say they lack the capacity to regulate the hacking and claim China itself a victim. But American cyber-security companies have tracked down perpetrators to buildings controlled by the People’s Liberation Army right outside of Shanghai. The repetitive attacks have targeted American financial institutions, universities, and even the U.S. Military drone program. But China is not the only one playing with fire here. The United States is currently being scrutinized for its illegal use of surveillance technologies around the world. Edward Snowden, a former government contractor, has released extensive amounts of information in this regard. The National Security Agency (NSA) has spied on the email and phone conversations from several leaders across the globe, from Brazil to Germany.

Mass Surveillance

Snowden’s release of classified documentation has been regarded as the most significant leak in U.S. history. Mr. Snowden claims his “sole motive” for leaking the documents was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” Furthermore, relations between U.S. and key allies have been damaged. The NSA has been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel mobile phone since 2002. Consequently, Germany has started an initiative to adopt a U.N. draft resolution against the United States to end mass surveillance. In Latin America, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, postponed an important state visit to the United States, over revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on her.

America’s Challenges

The United States faces a set of important issues that politicians must confront, especially in a point in time where some have started talk about a “de-Americanized world.” China has also begun to worry about America’s economic missteps in Congress, precisely due the degree of economic interdependence between the two nations. The recent threats of a potential government default have come with an array of multilateral consequences. The Chinese Xinhua news agency just called for the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency “so that the international community could permanently stay away from the spillover of the intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States.”[13] These are clear warnings that Congress really should start doing a better job.

Earlier in March 2008, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, proposed the creation of a “supersovereign currency” to diminish the effects of the domestic issues that the U.S. Congress was about to face, and protect the world’s economy from relying on an individual foreign currency. President Obama recently warned that even the threat of a government shutdown would spook away investors, driving up interest rates, and causing a domestic and global economic spillover. All of this in a time when the economy had just started to improve a bit.


The Future of International Relations

“China’s Peaceful Rise” slogan is a good way to approach the future of International Relations. Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao coined the term as way to rebut the “China threat theory.” And indeed, the world needs to adapt to a new way of viewing U.S.-China relations, not from the lens of liberalism or realism, nor in terms of “cold war” or “cool war” as Dr. Feldman suggests, but from the lens of peace and cooperation. China wants to ensure other countries that its rise will not be a threat to peace and security, and so far, there is no reason not to believe it. China’s actions in the U.N. Security Council clearly imply what the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” mean to their leadership. China is peaceful –except when it comes to Taiwan—.

The peaceful rise of China is likely to be one of the most important moments in the early 21st century. This will define a new international structure, in which the United States will play one of the most important roles. Never in history have we seen such a degree of interdependence between the world’s two major players. We are about to enter a point in history in which China is likely to become a superpower –if it manages to overcome certain key domestic obstacles— to parity with the United States. And if our leaders have taken good lessons from history, they will not see this as a threat, but as an opportunity for peaceful bipolarism.

Lessons from History

American officials cannot, and should not overlook China’s potential as they pave their way into a new world order. And Chinese leaders, on the other side, must be careful not to overestimate the extent of their new power. That means keeping responsible expansion, always assuring to the United States and the world, that they are mindful of other nations’ core interests and values. Moreover, in the diversified economy of the modern world, nations will need to make space for two superpowers –and perhaps more than two in the future—, the world will need to adapt the current international structures to the new balance of power in a peaceful manner.

Perhaps if we are smart enough, both the United States and China will prosper together. The key for this will lie in maintaining a relationship based on cooperation. Statesmen from both sides will need to learn not only about, but also from each other. This would involve taking a look back at the history of other dominant powers and their challenging counterparts, to use it as guide so as to avoid their missteps. Finally, the U.S.–China relations need not to become a zero-sum game. Seeing the future of international relations in terms of “cold war” is a big mistake, because it’s precisely this type of thinking what promotes instability. History makes it very clear.

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”

– John F. Kennedy



1 Noah Feldman. “The Unstoppable Force vs. the Immovable Object.” Foreign Policy. (accessed October 23, 2013).


[2] Office of the Secretary of State. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013.” U.S. Department of Defense. (accessed October 23, 2013).


[3]Noah Feldman. “The Unstoppable Force vs. the Immovable Object.” Foreign Policy. (accessed October 23, 2013).


[4]Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill. “Will China Ever Be No. 1?” Foreign Policy. (accessed October 23, 2013).


[5] Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin, 2011), 110.




[7] Robert G. Sutter, Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 7.


[8] Kissinger.


[9] David M. Lampton, The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money and Minds (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 16.


[10] Sutter.


[11] Richard Perez. “Universities Face a Rising Barrage of Cyberattacks.” The New York Times. (accessed on October 25, 2013).


[12] Edward Wong. “Hacking U.S. Secrets, China Pushes for Drones.” The New York Times. (accessed on October 25, 2013).

[13] Mark Lander. “Seeing Its Own Money at Risk, China Rails at U.S.” The New York Times. (accessed on October 23, 2013).

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