Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Some people in both China and the US are worried that the trade war the US launched against China since 2018 will soon impact other areas – investment, education, science and technology, judicial matters, the Hong Kong and Xinjiang questions and more. They are concerned that it will eventually evolve into a new cold war between the two major powers.
Niall Ferguson and other well-known American scholars have recently published articles contending that a new cold war has broken out between China and the US. What do Chinese scholars think about this issue?
The research group on China-US people-to-people exchanges at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China recently conducted a telephone questionnaire that surveyed 100 Chinese scholars. Here are the results exclusive in the Global Times: Of all the surveyed Chinese scholars, 62 percent believe that the US is indeed waging a new cold war against China. But more than 90 percent believe that China is capable of coping well with the new cold war offensive by the US.
Is the US capable of launching another cold war against China?
In the past three years, the attitude of the US toward China has turned sharply downward. Indeed, most Chinese scholars feel frosty relations are already there. According to the survey’s results, 62 percent of Chinese scholars believe that the US is launching a new cold war against China, while only 35 percent disagree. Some scholars believe that the state of affairs between China and the US are more of a “cool war.” Many scholars call on China to abandon its illusions, face reality, and meet these challenges.
One of the respondents, Liu Weidong, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Chinese scholars used to hold the view that China-US relations can never be too good or too bad. However, right now the new understanding is that the relationship between China and the US will never be the same again. There is also a view holding that China-US relations are falling off a “cliff.”
As for the US policy toward China, Liu believes that a growing number of scholars believe the US adopts a policy of “confrontation” and “containment,” and some scholars use a new term “confinement.” At present, Chinese scholars generally believe that the US political circle has reached a domestic consensus to be tough on China.
Liu said that China should give up its illusions about the US for three main reasons. First, at present the US political circle does no justice to China. Second, the US policy toward China is relentless and unbridled. In the past, the US has been willing to respond whenever China compromised. But the Trump administration has broken the convention, and it will impose tougher sanctions on China if China deals a strike back. Third, the US seems to be willing to accept a “lose-lose” situation in order to suppress China.
Regarding the term “new cold war,” Liu said that the old “Cold War” was a specific term referring to the confrontation between the two fronts of the US and the Soviet Union. But now it is the US unilaterally trying to organize an anti-China front, while China does not have an anti-US front.
In short, China is not the former Soviet Union and the US is not what it was. The global environment in which there was a great ideological confrontation between capitalism and socialism no longer exists. The international community is generally eager for peace and development. So, if the US really wants to launch a new cold war against China, will China and the US go into a “cold war” equivalent to the one between the US and the Soviet Union?
When questioned whether a new cold war like the US-Soviet one is likely between China and the US, 82 percent of Chinese scholars do not think it will happen. Only 13 percent think it is possible for China and the US to enter a US-Soviet style standoff.
In the context of globalization, countries’ interests are intertwined. Most countries in the world do not want to take sides in a competition between China and the US. At the bilateral level, the US and the Soviet Union had completely decoupled. By comparison, the interests of China and the US are so intertwined at foundational levels of trade, finance, education, counter-terrorism and global public security.
From the perspective of the willingness of both sides, China has no intention to engage itself in a cold war. The current major problems in the US are ethnic conflicts, wealth gaps, aging, financial crisis and industrial hollowing-out and so on, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ding Yifan, a researcher at the Institute of World Development, Development Research Center of the State Council, believes that some people in the US advocate a new cold war by using empirical thinking to examine current China-US relations. They hark back to the Soviet-style containment. This idea is totally divorced from reality. Some US politicians have drastically miscalculated the situation.
First, China and the US cannot sever all their ties. As the world’s most important trading partners, China and the US have intertwined interests. The profits of large US companies in the Chinese market even exceed those in the US market. Major US companies will not allow decoupling to take place between China and the US.
Second, some US politicians have greatly overestimated the country’s capital and technological power. During the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, the capital and technological advantages of the US were very obvious. But now this overwhelming advantage no longer exists.
Can the US really contain China’s rise?
In the eyes of most Chinese scholars, although the US is unable to launch a cold war similar to the great game between the US and the Soviet Union, the “cooling” of China-US relations has become a general trend. However, 90 percent of them believe that China can cope well with the US new cold war offensive against China. Only 6 percent of scholars are pessimistic.
Liu Zongyi, a research fellow with Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, believes that the situation between China and the US is very different from that between the US and the Soviet Union. Economically, China and the US are closely linked and interdependent. Although the US wants to decouple itself from China, it is very difficult. In terms of values and ideology, China is not in clash of values and ideologies with the West. In terms of geopolitics and military, the confrontation between the two countries exists to a certain extent. But China has not been completely besieged. Additionally, the strategic relationship between China and Russia is very close.
The main way for China to deal with the new cold war offensive by the US should be to promote China’s economic development and a new type of globalization. China should focus on domestic economic development and further open up its own economy. It should also further promote cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative it has proposed.
It is clear that the US has adopted a series of icy approaches toward China in order to curb China’s rise. Most Chinese scholars believe that the US won’t succeed. About 76 percent of Chinese scholars believe the US cannot contain China’s development. Many scholars have repeatedly stressed that as long as China does not make strategic mistakes and continues to deepen its reform and opening-up, the US will not be able to curb China’s development. The key is for China to do its own thing well.
Among the surveyed Chinese scholars, 19 percent believe that the US is able to contain China’s rise. But some do believe that US containment of China is partial and not comprehensive. In other words, the US will only affect China’s development to a certain extent.
Zhou Xiaojing, former director of the Asian-African Research Institute, Development Research Center of the State Council, believes that since Trump took office, the US government has mobilized almost all means of containment except military means. So far, the US has been unable to contain China’s development. The US strategic process to contain China will continue for 10-20 years in her estimation. During this period of time, how to effectively respond to the US containment will largely determine the process of China’s rise and its national rejuvenation.
Although the US cannot contain China’s rise in an all-round way, 58 percent of Chinese scholars believe China and the US can break out of the “Thucydides Trap.” Only 27 percent think China and the US cannot do this.
Tu Xinquan, director of China Institute for WTO Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, believes that the common foundation of China-US relations is disintegrating one by one. He sees an increasing possibility of China and the US falling into the “Thucydides Trap.”
The US believes the common foundation of China-US relations is disappearing. First, in terms of national security, China-US relations began in the 1970s with the common security needs of both sides to confront the perceived threat of the Soviet Union. Now, instead of a common security threat, the two sides have serious security conflicts with each other. Second, in terms of ideology, China not only has stopped moving closer to the US model, but also is running counter to the US and challenging US authority worldwide. Third, in terms of economic interests, the US contends that the China-US trade deficit harms the manufacturing base of the US and that the US investment in China has led to the hollowing-out of US industry. It also believes that China’s technological progress depends on stealing, copying, learning and buying US intellectual property.
Tu believes that from a Chinese standpoint, China doesn’t have the intention to challenge the US hegemony or leadership. China’s defense policy is defensive rather than offensive in nature, with no intention of pushing the US out of Asia. However, from a practical point of view, there is a huge difference in the discourse system between the two countries. They cannot understand each other or trust each other. China now believes that the US is deliberately suppressing China in order to maintain its hegemony. No matter what China does and how it does, the US will continue to suppress China. The US, on the other hand, has regarded China as an imaginary enemy that wants to overtake the US to become the world’s dominant power.
Tu also said that so far we cannot see the possibility that both countries are able to change their views on each other. Neither of them has the intention to actively change their views, or to take actions to alter the other side’s views about themselves. Of course, this does not mean that China and the US will completely decouple any time soon. But the two sides are already engaged in the most serious conflict since 1972 in areas of trade, science, technology, diplomacy and others. It’s foreseeable that the conflict will continue to escalate and expand.
In the questionnaire, the research group also asked the 100 Chinese scholars what they thought of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As is known to all, Pompeo has been recognized as the vanguard of the US’ anti-China campaign. Some Chinese scholars believe that Pompeo’s actions can be explained from the US perspective. But from China’s point of view, Pompeo is an unqualified diplomat, with 85 percent of scholars giving him a failing grade (5 or less). He Weiwen, former economic and commercial counselor at Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco and New York, said that as the chief diplomat of the US, Pompeo does not have the professional qualities of a diplomat or the responsibilities of great power diplomacy.
He believes that since Pompeo became the US secretary of state, he has not played any positive role. With Pompeo at the helm, the Iran nuclear issue, Israel-Palestine relations and the handling of the Korean nuclear issue have all failed and been destructive.
In summary, most of the 100 scholars believe that the “cold” relationship between China and the US is inevitable. They also believe it is impossible to return to a US-Soviet pattern of frosty confrontation. In the face of the US containment, as long as China does not make subversive mistakes, China’s rise is unstoppable.
Chinese scholars should be able to shape the public opinion of the US.
Wang Wen, the planner and designer of the questionnaire, is the executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and executive director of China-US People-to-People Exchange Research Center. He revealed that the idea for the project originated from his column “US launches Scold War, not Cold War” on the Global Times. Several American scholars have acknowledged in private letters that the term “Scold War” is interesting and reasonable. But they also said that the prospect of a cold war is mounting.
Wang believes that Chinese scholars should exert certain shaping power over American public opinion. He said if academic circles in both countries believe that the new cold war is not good for their own country’s interests, they should speak out boldly and reverse pessimistic public opinion as much as possible.
Jia Qingguo, a professor with the School of International Relations at Peking University, said the questionnaire is quite meaningful. The survey reflects that everyone is relatively pessimistic about the relationship between China and the US. The current findings don’t fully reflect the future, and pessimism doesn’t necessarily mean the future will be bad. It’s important to think about what we should do in the future, based on the results of the survey.
The authors are Yang Yuntao, associate research fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China and Zhang Tingting, assistant research fellow. [email protected]