IO – In a recent speech given at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington D.C., U.S. Vice President Michael Pence accused China of multiple sins. For those listening to his remarks, one could not be faulted for having the impression Cold War II was being declared.
Charging the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations with being naïve about the threat posed by China and its willingness to become a strategic partner within the liberal international order, Pence made it clear there is a new sheriff in town: Trump understands China is a “rival” and “adversary” and, unlike his predecessors, Pence made it clear this president is ready to take the appropriate measures to protect American values and interests.
There was an unexpected twist to Pence’s speech, and an important one worth noting. Besides repeating the Trump administration’s litany of complaints such as China’s unfair trading practices and forays in the South China Sea, America’s vice president also made some incendiary remarks. Pence accused China of trying to “exert influence and interfere in the domestic policy and politics of this country”, and he warned his audience the Chinese wanted to influence U.S. elections. Saying “what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing”, Pence sounded like a modern-day Eugene McCarthy as he charged Beijing with orchestrating an influence campaign by “rewarding” or “coercing” American politicians, journalists, businessmen and movie studios.
Back in Beijing, the reaction to Pence’s speech was mixed, ranging from pessimistic to sanguine. Pessimists called for alarm by making comparisons to Winton Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946, which essentially marked the beginning of the Cold War. More relaxed opinion makers pointed out there was nothing new in Pence’s speech and remain optimistic U.S.-China relations, while remaining competitive into the distant future, would also be more cooperative and less acrimonious once Trump shall have left the White House.
Then there were Trump’s critics in the U.S., who believe Pence’s speech was an attempt to deflect attention away from the Mueller investigations on Russia and fire up the Republican base before next month’s crucial mid-term elections. But while this might be partially true, it would be a mistake to interpret it as being purely a cynical ploy—after all, talk of a new cold war and the threats posed by a rising China had been circulating in American academia and policy circles long before Trump came to power.
Graham Allison, a professor of government from Harvard University, is a leading proponent of the increasingly mainstream opinion that conflict between the U.S. and China is more likely than not. Allison, in his 2017 best seller “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”, draws upon the history of great power conflicts under the lens of the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece which the great historian Thucydides explained being a consequence of “the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
Whether or not America and China will manage to avoid falling into the Thucydides’s Trap remains to be seen. Much will depend on the leadership in the two countries. For now, though, the trajectory does not look promising. China, a modern-day Athens under Xi Jinping, is firmly committed to expand her influence abroad. Xi is set to rule for life, while the rise of Trump and his foreign policy team—which includes hawks like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—is a political phenomenon drawn from a deep vein of right-wing populism and xenophobia that will likely outlast Trump’s presidency and result in a more confrontational foreign policy with American rivals such as China.
Indeed, the international community should be wary of what les ahead. Allison, in a recent editorial in the Financial Times newspaper entitled “America is hunkering down for a new cold war”, argues the Trump administration’s approach toward China reflects a “serious emerging strategy to confront China.” But Allison also rightly observes this emergent confrontation is “without the benefit of core strategic documents like George Kennan’s Long Telegram or Paul Nitze’s NSC-68 policy paper that crystallized U.S. strategy in the first cold war”—which, in other words, means that while the hawks in the Trump administration are aiming to confront China on multiple fronts, there is no apparent end game.
Hence some serious questions remain to be answered. Does the Trump team want to undermine the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in China? Alternatively, and less ominously, is Washington hoping to contain China and its apparent intention to wield greater influence beyond its borders and revise the international order? Or, is Trump, the self-styled master negotiator, looking to force China to the table and forge a long peace?
If Trump and the likes of Bolton are hoping to undermine China, then the prospect for an end to the trade war is bleak, and, the prospect for conflict is much greater. If, on the other hand, a repeat of the first cold war—which is containment—is in the cards, then a protracted confrontation is surely guaranteed unless, at some point, Beijing and Washington come to the realization that negotiating a long peace is in the best interests of both nations.