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Is the U.S. in a new Cold War with China? How much worse could things get?

Is the U.S. in a new Cold War with China? How much worse could things get?
President Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Nov. 9, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP/Getty Images)

The trade war between the U.S. and China is deepening, with prospects bleak for a swift settlement. Analysts see the conflict as a symptom of something much larger: an effort by the U.S. to slow China’s rise as a second superpower.

The age of great power competition is back, a titanic battle that could be long, dangerous and unpredictable. But just how bad could things get?

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Is this a new Cold War?

Most of the warnings of an emerging Cold War have come from China, from President Xi Jinping on down.The state-run People’s Daily argued President Trump’s trade war was “never just about narrowing trade deficits but to contain China in much broader areas.”

That view is understandable. U.S. officials increasingly point to China as the United States’ main foe. Trump recently cited China when justifying the need for a military space force by 2020. The National Security Strategy his administration released in December identified China as an enemy and a “revisionist” power determined to undermine American security and economic power.

A Pentagon report this month said Chinese bombers were probably training to hit U.S. targets. And FBI Director Christopher Wray recently called China the broadest threat to America, citing investigations of Chinese spying operations in 50 U.S. states.

In July, Michael Collins, a senior CIA official focused on East Asia, said China was quietly waging what was by definition a Cold War, even if it was different than the Cold War of the Soviet era.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, called the current conflict a “grand psychological struggle” between two great powers and warned that it is fraught with risk, with China increasingly asserting itself and the U.S.determined to maintain its status as the dominant superpower.

“There’s no way that the [Americans] are going to accept a world where China or anyone else is No. 1,” Brown said. “What we’re seeing is a very concerted effort by America to try to slow this process down and to try to deal with it.”

Still, Brown and other analysts stopped short of calling the conflict a new Cold War. The two economies are deeply entwined, unlike the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Neither side is pursuing the other’s destruction. And there is no nuclear arms race or proxy wars across the planet.

What is at the heart of the tension?

The centerpiece of Xi's leadership has been the Chinese dream, his promise that the country will emerge as a superpower dominant in many of the world’s advanced technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, high-speed trains and aerospace.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said China’s ambitions are “bad for America.” In June, the White House accused China of coercing U.S. firms to hand over their technological expertise or stealing sensitive U.S. technologies.

China has expanded its reach in the South China Sea by building military installations on a series of islands, despite opposition from Washington and regional powers. Meanwhile, Beijing is projecting its economic power across the globe through its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure plan in dozens of countries.

U.S. officials view the plan as a way of gaining strategic control across the world.

But from China’s perspective, it’s all about U.S. efforts to block China from its gaining rightful place as a global power.

“If we go by the U.S. far right’s narrative, then it’s all about preventing the rise of China before it overtakes the U.S. in global dominance,” said Wang Yong, director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University.

He said there were two camps in the U.S. — one favoring engagement with China, the other viewing China as a threat. Hawks in Washington would stop at nothing to prevent China’s rise, even at the risk of conflict, he said.

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“With Trump and his conservative team in power, the containment faction has been moving from the fringe to the central position," he said. “Under Trump’s rule, the situation is becoming more and more dangerous. The Republican Party’s most conservative, most nationalist and most anti-China members and factions have been gathering closer and closer to Trump, and so under Trump’s rule the conflict between China and the U.S. is probably going to continue rising.”

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, Australia, said it would be impossible to prevent China’s rise. “But the U.S. is attempting to constrain China where it envisions that China will surpass it,” he said.

Those areas, he said, include technology, dominance in the South China Sea and overall economic and political might.

How bad could this get? And how long could it last?

Analysts were quick to point out that the rivalry — from the seas to cyberspace, from commerce to espionage — started before Trump was in office and will continue long after he is gone.

The tensions are growing on many fronts: the accelerating trade war, fights over technology and intellectual property, spying scandals, friction over Taiwan and shadow boxing in the South China Sea.

“I think it’s serious. It’s multidimensional and it will go on in all likelihood for decades,” McGregor said. “How bad will it get? I don’t think anyone’s talking about full-scale military conflict or even military skirmishes.”

“But everything else you can think of short of that — be it trade wars, geopolitical competition, economic competition, technological competition, competition to woo other countries into your camp, competition to have a dominant role in rewriting global norms and rules — we are settling in for all those kinds of fights.”

Can the two global giants live side by side peacefully in future decades?

“I don’t think we’ll end up with one vanquishing the other,” McGregor said.

Wang argued that economic interdependence will eventually win out.

“You have economic relationship which is valued at nearly $700 billion and that is more than any bilateral relationship has ever involved,” he said. “So the two countries are mutually dependent.”

But Brown was reluctant to make predictions, given what he said was Trump’s approach of aggressively shaking things up without knowing where it would lead.

“Take a hammer to it and just smash the whole thing to pieces and say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ And either good things happen or terrible things happen,” he said. “That’s where we are at the moment. With the great chaos that Trump has created, all I can see at the moment is lots and lots of uncertainty. We don’t know where the pieces are going to fall.”

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