Nearly three decades after the Cold War ended between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a new debate is stirring: Is the U.S. heading into a new Cold War, this time with China?
“The Chinese military has undergone a substantial program of modernization to the point now where they are a near-peer military in a number of military domains,” Neil Wiley, the director of analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in an interview with NPR.
Wiley has a top-floor office in Washington, D.C., that’s suited for deep reflection on big questions. He looks out over the Potomac River, at the planes coming and going at Reagan National Airport, and toward the top brass over at the Pentagon.
This year, for the first time, the DIA has put out an unclassified report on China’s military, similar to the ones it issued on the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The report catalogues China’s rise: a military budget second only to the U.S., an aggressive approach to disputed islands in the South China Sea, joint military exercises with Russia, its first foreign military base in Djibouti.
“Chinese leaders characterize China’s long-term military modernization program as essential to achieving great power status,” Army Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., the director of the DIA, writes in the report. China is “on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world. In some areas, it already leads the world.”
The DIA report doesn’t use the term “Cold War,” and other U.S. government agencies and officials avoid the term as well. But outside government circles, it’s a hot topic. From books to foreign policy journals to national security conferences, there’s a robust discussion on the similarities and differences between the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the increasingly tense U.S.-China relations.
Historian Walter Russell Mead, a prolific author on U.S. foreign policy, recently wrote a Wall Street Journal column under the headline “Americans Aren’t Ready for Cold War II.” The U.S. has failed to build a consensus on dealing with China, he says, in contrast to the unified American front against the Soviet Union.
He doesn’t think the U.S. and China are destined to have a military showdown. But, he adds, “It’s almost always been the case through human history that when people rationally sum up the costs and benefits of war, it’s very often the smarter thing not to go to war. And yet wars still happen.”
The U.S.-Soviet relationship was almost entirely a political and military rivalry. The U.S.-China relationship is far more complex. Trade between the two countries was more than $700 billion last year. Some 350,000 Chinese students study at American universities. Large numbers of tourists jet between the two countries daily.
All this helps reduce the likelihood of a full-fledged conflict, said Susan Thornton, a senior State Department official for Asian affairs until her retirement last year. She thinks the Cold War analogy is overblown, but she is concerned.
“I do fear that we are headed into an era of unceasing confrontation, where the U.S. is seeking to challenge China on every front, from military to economic to technological to ideological to soft power,” said Thornton, who now teaches at Yale Law School.
She feels the current U.S. approach, typified by the Trump administration’s trade war, is causing a good deal of this friction.
Roy Kamphausen, a former U.S. Army officer and head of the nonpartisan National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington, D.C., said China has adopted an increasingly negative view of the U.S.
“The Chinese leadership judged that the United States was, is, a wasting great power by virtue of our mismanagement of our financial system which led to the great financial crisis” a decade ago, he said.
And on the military front, “They see our entanglements in wars as diminishing our power for very little strategic gain. And so they sense an opportunity, a sense that their time is now,” Kamphausen added.
The Chinese government recently issued a major military assessment of its own. It says the U.S. has “provoked and intensified competition among major countries.” The report adds that the “U.S. is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention, adding complexity to regional security.”
The two countries have employed their militaries in very different ways. U.S. forces circle the globe with hundreds of foreign bases. The U.S. has been at war nonstop since 2001 and has troops deployed in three war zones (Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq) and many other hot spots.
The Chinese military, while growing rapidly, hasn’t fought a war since a one-month border conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Its top security concerns have traditionally been internal, or along its borders. Its lone foreign military base, in Djibouti, was established just two years ago.
So where’s all this heading? The experts cite three key areas to watch.
The first is Taiwan, says Wiley.
“The primary driver for two decades of Chinese military modernization has been the clear and consistent desire on the part of China to have a military option for the reunification of Taiwan,” he said.
Kamphausen adds a caveat: “It’s a military that’s terribly risk-averse,” he said. “The Chinese want to intimidate, coerce, influence Taiwan in directions that support their own objectives — below the threshold of getting the U.S. involved militarily.”
A second big issue, says Mead, is China’s vulnerability at sea, should there be a major clash.
“The strongest tool America has is its ability to stop ocean commerce going in and out of China,” he said, noting China’s huge dependence on global trade that goes through ports along its eastern coast. “All the raw materials, including oil and gas, that China imports from abroad would stop coming in. You’d have a massive economic seize-up inside China.”
A third big concern is the ongoing cyber battle. The U.S. accuses China’s military of waging nonstop cyber attacks on government and military targets, as well as on high-tech companies and universities.
“We don’t know what China’s cyber capacities are. They don’t know what ours are. And in any case, both countries’ capacities and the field of engagement are dramatically changing from year to year,” said Mead.
Add all this up, the analysts say, and you get two countries that will be locked in constant competition for decades. The challenge, they warn, is keeping competition from turning into confrontation.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmye1.