In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev notoriously told Western ambassadors in Moscow: “We will bury you.” The statement was emblematic of the Cold War as an existential global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
There seems to be a consensus that the US and China are now in or heading toward a “new Cold War”. The phase has become a trope to describe the relationship, and not just by the lazy or historically illiterate. No less a personage than Henry Kissinger warns that we are in the “foothills of a Cold War”. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, accuses the US of pushing relations towards a “new Cold War”.
Something has clearly changed. From 1972, when they re-established contacts after more than two decades of hostility, to perhaps circa 2010, the overall trajectory of US-China relations was toward engagement, despite episodes of tension over Taiwan and other issues. Engagement has not ceased. However, the overall emphasis of the relationship is now on strategic competition and looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future.
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Still, is the Cold War an accurate metaphor? The question may strike some as excessively punctilious. But inappropriate metaphors overused can become self-fulfilling. It is important to examine the metaphor carefully rather than use it carelessly.
The Cold War was not just a period of dangerous US-Soviet rivalry and tension. In any system of sovereign states, rivalry and tension are normal conditions, never absent in some degree. In 1956, what Khrushchev actually said was: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”. Seven years later, he clarified, “I once said, ‘We will bury you’, and I got into a lot of trouble with it. Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class (emphasis added) will bury you.”
Ideology distinguished the US-Soviet Cold War from traditional great power competition. In practice, both sides acted pragmatically ” nuclear deterrence gave them little choice. But the ideological element was nevertheless central to US and Soviet efforts to shape the international order in their own interests and image. For the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in particular, the ideological claim of historical infallibility legitimated its right to rule, and its conception of Soviet interests was filtered through that ideology.
In July 1961, Anastas Mikoyan, one of the few surviving old Bolsheviks, warned the East Germans: “Marxism was born in Germany … If socialism does not win in the GDR (German Democratic Republic), if communism does not prove itself as superior and vital here, then we have not won. The issue is this fundamental to us.” Khrushchev admitted years later that it was the failure of the GDR to make its system attractive enough to stop the best and most qualified East Germans fleeing westward that made building the Berlin Wall unavoidable.
In 2003, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitution was revised to allow “advanced productive forces” ” in plain language, capitalists ” to join the party, ending any pretence that the CCP’s legitimacy depended on its role as the vanguard of class-struggle. The CCP today legitimates itself by an assertive ethno-nationalism and its success in “rejuvenating” China after “a hundred years of humiliation”. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP claims the support of “all Chinese” on that basis. The active rejection of substantial sections of the ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan of the CCP’s version of the “China Dream” therefore poses a challenge to its legitimacy.
Protests in Hong Kong and the repeated electoral success of the DPP in Taiwan have so far not found much resonance on the mainland. But the challenge is potentially as existential as that which Mikoyan complained about to the GDR almost 70 years ago. That is why the CCP insists almost hysterically on blaming the West for instigating the Hong Kong protests. I do not doubt that some in the West did fish in troubled waters. And yet, as I joked with a Chinese friend, if the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy were really responsible for the Hong Kong protests, they would have been lucky to get a dozen people on the streets.
Taiwan is more complicated because the US will almost certainly react against any violent change in the status quo. However, the West had nothing to do with the development of a separate Taiwanese identity, or a separate Hong Kong identity, or the wariness with which many if not most overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and elsewhere regard Xi’s China Dream. Since the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, what is China and who is Chinese have been complicated questions. The CCP’s answers do not command universal support ” even within the PRC.
We will never have precise figures. But anecdotally, the growth of new Chinatowns in many Western cities ” not to mention the rise in property prices and the imposition of de facto capital controls by Chinese authorities ” suggests, ironically, that the very economic success of the China Dream has given appreciable numbers of its beneficiaries the wherewithal to hedge against China’s future, if not seek a permanent exit from the PRC. The CCP’s China Dream evokes ambivalence ” especially among those whose daily lived experiences have made them the most familiar with its ambiguities and uncertainties.
The phenomenon of Chinese citizens leaving China is significant precisely because post-Mao China is economically successful. China is already the world’s second largest economy and sooner or later, given the size of its population, will probably overtake the US as the largest. This has evoked concerns about China’s challenge to Western development models. We should neither brush aside nor exaggerate the significance of China’s success.
The West certainly overreacted to a minor theme in Xi’s speech to the CCP’s 19th Congress in 2017. In that speech, China, Xi boasted, was “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind”.
These two sentences, in an extremely long speech, were taken as an almost existential challenge ” as if Xi had said something of extraordinary significance. But Xi was only stating in somewhat grandiose terms what had been obvious for a long time.
The essential issue confronting the non-Western world for the last three centuries or so has been adaptation to a Western-defined modernity. The most successful examples of adaptation or ” to call the process by its proper, if politically inconvenient, name ” Westernisation, have all been in East Asia: beginning with Meiji Japan in the 19th century, then on to South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and, among others, several Asean countries, all adapting and developing in their own ways. Contemporary China is only the latest example. Xi’s boast that the experience was somehow uniquely “Chinese” is historically inaccurate.
After the failure of the Qing dynasty to reform itself, all of China’s experiments in search of the wealth and power that would enable it to stand up to the West ” first republicanism, then communism of different variants ” have involved Western doctrines and ideologies. To westernise is, of course, not to lose all identity, culture or history. But there is no denying that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” with or without the addition of “Xi Jinping Thought” ” the most recent and successful of China’s post-Qing experiments ” is rooted in Western experience. China’s experience is unique only in the trite sense that every country’s experience is unique.
With the advent of the nuclear age, neither the US nor the Soviet Union could destroy the other by war. Their rivalry increasingly focused on economics ” that is, on which system could deliver a better life to its people and thus prove more internationally attractive. There was really no contest, although this was not apparent until almost the end of the Soviet Union. Communism was borrowed by China from the Soviet Union. However, Deng Xiaoping’s break with Marxist-Leninist economic theory placed US-China competition within an entirely different ideological context from that of US-Soviet competition.
Economics is even more central to US-China competition. The Soviet Union essentially collapsed under the accumulated weight of its own economic inefficiencies. China is unlikely to meet such an end. The contrast between China’s growth and the difficulties with which Western economies have struggled for the last decade or longer have instead spawned an entire genre of commentary on the decline of the West and the superiority of the Chinese system. Some pundits have spent entire careers insinuating that China has somehow “won”.
The growth of China’s economy is impressive and cannot be denied. But the differences between the US and Chinese systems are no longer as stark as those that existed between the US and the Soviet Union. It is no longer credible to hope or fear ” as millions once did, many dying for their beliefs ” that if capitalism failed, communism would take its place.
Throughout the 20th century, systemic differences between American “capitalism” and Soviet “communism” were fundamental: in essence, the economic competition was between the market economy and the planned economy. Economic links between the US and the Soviet Union were inconsequential. In principle, although not always in practice, the aim of Moscow’s economic policy was autarchy ” at least within its own sphere of influence. Under these circumstances, it made some (though not complete) sense to think of competition between the US-Soviet economic competition in more or less binary and zero-sum terms.
In the 21st century, post-Maoist China and the US are both so central to the world economy and have become so entangled with each other and with other economies in complex patterns of interdependence, that describing their competition in binary terms is nonsense. Across-the-board decoupling of all domains is as much a delusion as the notion of China creating a completely alternative system. US-China relations are certainly not in the simplistic win-lose situation that, ironically, both CCP propagandists (and their fellow travellers) and the Trump administration like to depict.
The US (and other Western economies) and post-Maoist China are now both mixed economies. The difference between them lies primarily in their different balances between market and state-controlled elements in their systems. Such differences are important, but they are no longer stark or fundamental. The US and China both need to recalibrate their balances. Conceptualising the challenges that they face in such terms casts US-China economic competition in a more nuanced way than during the Cold War.
For the US and other Western economies, the core challenge is how to ensure the long-term durability of their systems by mitigating inequality and other downsides of globalisation that had been accentuated by neoliberal deregulation. This requires state intervention and more resources, or at least the reprioritisation of existing social policies to free finite resources for new uses. Existing Western social compacts are almost all already unsustainable due to changing demographics. Changing them will be politically extremely difficult, and perhaps well-nigh impossible.
Western democracy has always been, to a degree, dysfunctional by design. Checks and balances against an overconcentration of power make democratic decision-making cumbersome. But up to the end of the 20th century, in most Western democracies, political parties were few in number and most parties were really oligarchies organised on the foundation of a democratic base. This allowed political systems to work well enough to be manageable.
Political power is now more fragmented and diffused ” primarily because social media and other 21st century information technologies have deconstructed and dispersed the idea of popular sovereignty. It has become more and more difficult to reach and sustain consensus or compromises on many issues. Consequently, it has become very difficult to get things done through the political process. Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, stated the problem succinctly: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
The core challenge confronting China is different but as ” or even more ” daunting. Leninist systems, unfettered by the vagaries of electoral politics, are better placed to make critical changes and implement long-term policies. After Mao Zedong died, Deng was able to drastically change China’s course with relatively little opposition. It is difficult to imagine any Western leader free to act so decisively in peacetime. But even as Deng introduced market elements into a Soviet-style planned economy, he did not abandon Soviet-style political structures. China is still a Leninist state led by a vanguard party that insists on its absolute control over all aspects of politics, economics and society.
To think that economic reform will necessarily lead to Western-style political arrangements is delusional. Nevertheless, there is certainly a fundamental contradiction between the imperatives of a Leninist state in which the overriding political value is control, and the market, which, by definition, means less control. In 2012, the CCP itself openly acknowledged that a new model with a “decisive” role for the market in the allocation of resources was needed. The adjective describing the role of the market is one that the CCP itself chose.
The choice between political control and market efficiency is, of course, not absolute but rather a matter of balance between the two elements. By the early 2000s, the CCP had itself come to recognise the limits of economic reform within a strict Leninist political framework, and was cautiously experimenting with more flexible political arrangements at the local level. The intention was to promote “intraparty democracy” and bottom-up input in the selection and promotion of local party officials.
Xi stopped this. He has reversed any modification of the political dynamics of a Leninist state. In a Leninist state, change is always driven from the top. Bottom-up change is, by definition, threatening. Change is thus almost totally dependent on the quality and personality of the leader. In the Soviet Union, the cautious leadership of the Brezhnev years meant stagnation; Gorbachev’s weak leadership brought disaster. Men of Deng’s calibre are rare in any country.
The lesson that Xi seems to have taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union is the necessity of a strong party based on “democratic centralism” ” in other words, a party totally subordinate to the will of its top leader. Xi is not wrong. In a Leninist state, the party is the state, and the leader in large measure defines the party. It was a measure of Gorbachev’s weakness that he somehow never seemed to understand this reality, and confused Western praise with domestic support. Once he permitted glasnost, the Soviet Union’s days were numbered.
And yet by strongly asserting party discipline and control, and significantly weakening if not totally abandoning collective leadership, Xi has also sharpened the fundamental challenge of economic reform within a Leninist framework. Very little has been done to give the market a “decisive” role. The Chinese system is in no danger of imploding as did the Soviet Union. Xi’s reconcentration of power may nevertheless have reintroduced a neo-Maoist single point of failure into a system that could be reaching an inflection point where fundamental decisions cannot be postponed.
Viewed from this perspective, there is even a certain symmetry in the challenges facing the US and China in that the former requires somewhat more political control, whereas the latter requires somewhat less political control. The similarities should not be pushed too far. The differences between the different types of political systems and different types of mixed economy may prove decisive over the long run.
Anyone trying to understand contemporary Western systems solely through the lens of their politics can be forgiven for concluding that they are indeed in irrevocable decline. Fortunately, in Western mixed economies where the balance between state and market is tilted toward the latter, politics, while not inconsequential, has a far more limited role. In Western systems, the state touches most lives only indirectly and the ordinary citizen can, if he or she chooses, ignore politics and the state. This is not possible in a Leninist system.
This is particularly true in the US where even liberal Americans are generally less interventionist than most conservative Europeans ” that is, “liberal” in the sense of being sympathetic toward government intervention and “conservative” as in being sceptical about government intervention. The most important things in the US do not necessarily happen in Washington, DC. They occur in corporations, universities and research laboratories, and on Wall Street and main streets in the 50 states of the Union.
Change in the West is thus much more commonly bottom-up than top-down, emerging organically in response to felt societal needs and in manners far less dependent on the personality of political leaders. This is one of the reasons for which democracies are often slow to respond to crises ” it takes time for society to reach consensus on what needs to be done, and more time for the political system to align itself to society. A consensus is, by definition, a less than optimal solution. However, democracies can be effective when they do respond, and their responses may well prove more enduring even if suboptimal.
In 1970, the historian John Lukacs published a deeply pessimistic analysis of Western and specifically, American society entitled The Passing of the Modern Age. Lukacs used the sordid condition of Times Square and 42nd Street in New York City, “the once throbbing and triumphant heart of America’s steely civilisation”, as a metaphor for the degradation into which the West had fallen. Given the pristine condition of that part of Manhattan today, the imagery that Lukacs assumed would be immediately grasped is now obscure except to a person of a certain age. That what Lukacs took for granted is now probably puzzling to many is a useful reminder that “rejuvenation” is not a Chinese monopoly.
Drawing geopolitical conclusions from economic performance is always problematic. China’s economic ties as often arouse resentment as influence or admiration ” even in countries as deeply dependent on China as Pakistan, North Korea, Laos or Cambodia. The ethno-nationalism that animates Chinese policies often leads to arrogant, diplomatically clumsy and tone-deaf ” if not culturally autistic ” behaviour. Implicit in China’s narrative of victimhood and “rejuvenation” is a sense of entitlement, reinforced by the more ancient Chinese tradition that harmony in relationships is only possible by acceptance of hierarchy with China at the apex.
Mao used to accuse the Soviet Union of “great-power chauvinism”. China today seems to be making a parallel mistake in many of its relationships. In 2010, at a meeting of the Asean Regional Forum, then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, exasperated with their resistance to China’s claims in the South China Sea, bluntly told the Asean foreign ministers: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” This brought to mind Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, telling the Lithuanian foreign minister in 1940 to be realistic and realise that the time of small nations had passed.
Beijing uses hyperbolic rhetoric about “communities of common destiny” to describe relationships. Countries may not demur because they want a good or at least stable relationship with China. But it is difficult to think of any major country with which China enjoys anything more than a transactional relationship. China suffers from a persistent deficit of soft power. The EU, Japan, Canada, India, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia all, to some degree, share American geopolitical and economic concerns about China. And perhaps it may be more accurate to describe countries like Iran and Russia, that are close to China, as having reason to better conceal their concerns rather than being free of them.
Many countries today harbour concerns about a more transactional post-Cold War American too. US President Donald Trump is an extreme symptom of the new America, but he did not invent it. When the novice Senator Barack Obama improbably won the White House in 2008 with the slogan “Change We Can Believe In”, American voters did not understand him as primarily referring to change abroad, but to change at home. They took his message as a promise that long-neglected domestic issues should now be addressed, and that it was time to put America’s own house in order; in other words, to “put America first”.
Liberal internationalists and CCP propagandists (it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart) now describe this as “America in retreat” or “America forswearing leadership”. They fail to recognise that these tropes contradict the trope of a “new Cold War”. How can the US be in retreat if it is fighting a new Cold War? Among other things, American “leadership” now takes the form of crudely pressing sometimes reluctant friends and allies to deny China access to certain technologies. But “leadership” cannot only be something of which you approve. It is whatever the leader does regardless of whether you like it or not.
What these tropes really mean is that post-Cold War America defines its interests more narrowly and less generously than in the past. But the past is past. After the dangers and exertions of the (20th century) Cold War, why should Americans continue to bear any burden and pay any price to maintain 21st century international order? Yet can the EU deal with a resurgent Russia, or East Asia with an increasingly assertive China, without the US? However uncomfortable these countries may be with the new American attitude ” which, in some form, is likely to outlast Trump ” they cannot but deal with the US. Whatever their misgivings, exit is not a practical option. Consequently ” to use Cold War terminology ” the global “correlation of forces” is hardly in Beijing’s favour.
Those inclined to draw straight-line correlations between China’s economic weight and political influence often seem to base their conclusions on the assumption ” perhaps unconscious ” that recipients of Chinese trade and investment are so haplessly naive or irredeemably corrupt as not to know their own national interests. There are, to be sure, many seriously corrupt leaders. But this insulting and ethnocentric assumption (as it is usually applied to the “Third World”) neglects what proved to be the strongest force during the 20th century Cold War: nationalism.
The US and the Soviet Union both found it difficult to tame and herd their cats, although both invested large amounts of aid, trade and investment in the attempt. Both found that even the most corrupt leader can also be a nationalist. The universal ideologies professed by the US and Soviet Union were intended to consolidate the centrality of their respective Romes. But the dynamics of Cold War competition were very quickly shaped by nationalism into more complex patterns. Nationalism was more compelling than either universal ideology, and both the US and the Soviet Union struggled against it ” ultimately in futility. What reason is there to think China’s experience will be any different?
Since the end of WWI, and more and more insistently as the 20th century unfolded, fragmentation rather than consolidation has been the most salient characteristic of the international system. There were three main waves of fragmentation: the first after WWI when self-determination was established as a principle of international relations and old empires broke up; the second after WWII as the remaining empires were swept away by decolonisation; and the third after the Soviet Union fragmented, with effects beyond its 15 constituent republics.
The number of states ” all in principle, although not always in reality, nation-states ” expanded with each wave. At its height, the League of Nations had 63 members. The UN started in 1945 with 51 members. By 1980, when post-war decolonisation was almost complete, the UN had 154 members. In 1992, a year after the USSR ended, membership had grown to 179. Today, the UN has 193 members and two observers. This is unlikely to be the final number. To expect that an international system of such great diversity will neatly settle into any clear or orderly American or Chinese pattern borders on fantasy.
The experience of the Cold War years suggests that nationalism and the progressive fragmentation of the international system will pose complicated challenges to any major power with aspirations of global leadership. Unless major powers act sensitively, their nationalisms will engender resentment and resistance from other nationalisms. The US and China both consider themselves exceptional, but neither is renowned for sensitivity. Even the smallest country is never without some degree of agency. Given the complex patterns of interdependence that characterise the world economy and the scepticism with which the US and China are viewed, no serious country, big or small, is going to define its interests in terms of a simplistic or exclusive alignment with either the US or China.
US-China strategic competition is unlikely to have as clear-cut a denouement as US-Soviet competition. It is more plausible to imagine China and the US ” both in their own ways somewhat dysfunctional but not terminally so, and both too vital to be ignored but neither particularly trusted ” stumbling into the future locked in an uneasy but indefinite embrace.
For all the reasons I have offered, that future is unlikely to be, as the “new Cold War” metaphor implies, bipolar. The future ” already forming as an overlay across the existing American hub-and-spokes alliance system and the emerging, but still largely inchoate, Chinese Belt and Road structure, but not entirely displacing either ” is likely to be a far more complex one of asymmetrical, dynamic multipolarity.
Asymmetric because the central axis of US-China relations stands as a category apart from all other relationships, and the distance in all metrics of power between these two countries and all others will only grow wider over time. Dynamic and multipolar because other powers, big and small, will continually arrange and rearrange themselves along and around this central axis ” sometimes tilting one way and sometimes the other, as their interests in specific domains and circumstances dictate, but without necessarily settling into two more or less stable clusters as they did during the US-Soviet Cold War.
This is a structure that has its own dangers and complications. But it is also a structure that, far more than simple bipolarity and precisely because of its complexity, maximises manoeuvre space for countries of any size ” provided they have the wit to recognise the opportunities, and the agility and courage to seize them. To quote that greatest of American sages, Yogi Berra: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Bilahari Kausikan is the former Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry. This piece first appeared in Global Brief.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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