Today’s Cold War between the U.S. and China is serving little, if any, purpose. Mainly, the goal seems to be to divert U.S. voters’ attention away from the current administration’s mishandling of COVID-19.
While, outwardly, the U.S. has rationalized its actions as a response to China’s behavior towards Xinjiang and Hong Kong, within the U.S. the human and economic costs of the virus are becoming painfully clear to many Americans. The human cost, reported daily, stands over 5 million cases and over 160,000 deaths, both far higher than any other country in the world. While numbers can leave one numb, it means hundreds of thousands American have lost someone dear. In economic terms the Federal government has already spent $2 trillion, a number likely to increase substantially to cover ongoing unemployment, financial aid for businesses and support for state and local governments. While the U.S. government projected an optimistic V-shaped recovery in the third quarter, the Federal Reserve chair projected the economy would not return to normal before the end of 2021 at the earliest and the GDP is likely to be double digit negative this year. Consumer confidence will likely continue to trend downwards as many states report severe outbreaks after opening too early and unemployment rate is expected to surpass 10 percent. It’s hard to believe anything, including a Cold War with China, can divert voters’ attention away from the hard truths on the ground.
The U.S. has thus far focused its new Cold War around the issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the Covid-19 pandemic, Huawei, and the Chinese students and scientists within the U.S. In response to these perceived threats, it has levied sanctions against Chinese officials, banned Huawei 5G equipment and pressed other countries to do so, passed legislations on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, incited developing countries against partnering with China through its Belt and Road Initiative, prevented Huawei from accessing nanochips manufactured with U.S. equipment and sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea.
While the material impact of these actions is largely inconsequential, they do negatively impact the international community’s perception of the U.S., which is already severely damaged by its inability to contain COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. population and the domestic and international economy. The US’s requested withdrawal from the WHO has also been broadly condemned internationally. In contrast, China’s international reputation is faring quite well. China’s response to the pandemic has been highly successful. China’s decision to extend its national security to Hong Kong, highly controversial in some countries, has the support of many others. Additionally, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, after several hiccups early on regarding financial viability, is supported by many developing and developed countries, and China’s participation in multinational organizations is in sharp contrast to the US’s position.
Another element of this new Cold War is the ongoing and well-publicized trade war. While advertised domestically as a win for the U.S., the trade war has instead resulted, as predicted by economists, in a lose-lose for both countries. The U.S. effort to decouple from Chinese technology led to China doubling down on its 2025 advanced technology initiative and its goal of manufacturing its own nanochips, where China trails the U.S. By cutting off the sale of chips to Huawei and other Chinese companies, the U.S. eliminates a major revenue source for US-based chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm, leaving those companies with less cash to invest in their own research and development.
The administration has also targeted Chinese students at U.S. universities as well as Chinese scientists. Both groups have been identified as security risks and have been subject to immigration restrictions. Historically 40% of Chinese students, generally among the most talented graduates, have remained in the U.S. This number is likely to decline, depriving the U.S. of critical talent. Predictably U.S. corporations have pushed back against the immigration restrictions.
A final consequence of both the trade war and the Cold War is domestic Sinophobia, which affects tens of millions of not just Chinese Americans. Fueled by the U.S. media, anti-China sentiments in the U.S. are at an all-time high, impacting the lives of Chinese and Asian American citizens, businesses, and communities. The issue of Sinophobia has, unfortunately, been largely ignored by the U.S. public, media, and government, while racial tensions between black and white Americans draw the focus of both international and domestic news.
So, if a Cold War with China does not support U.S. self-interest, why is it happening? While diverting attention from the U.S. COVID-19 response in an election year is an obvious answer, there are other important factors to consider as well. One is the lack of understanding by U.S. officials as to what China’s priorities really are, though China has made little attempt to hide them. The Chinese priorities lie in domestic stability and prosperity for the Chinese people as well as protecting their sovereignty and borders, and reclaiming global respect. Rather than constructive engagement with China within the context of each country’s priorities, the U.S. has opted for broadly based criticism.
Unfortunately, the Cold War’s impact will likely not be limited to the two protagonists as countries in the Asia Pacific region will be pressured to align one way or the other. Fortunately, the vast majority of these countries will resist choosing sides and will deal with the US and China on a basis consistent with their own self-interest. Just as U.S. attempts to “contain” China have not been effective, time will demonstrate that a Cold War with China isn’t in either country’s best interest.