The US Senate Declares Cold War on China

April 20, 2021 | 10:27 am
Markus Castaneda
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

The most costly mistake the US government made during the Cold War was to see everything that happened in the world as part of a contest for global supremacy. The Strategic Competition Act of 2021 makes the same mistake. The Senate bill mandates a “whole of government” effort to confront an “illiberal and authoritarian” China everywhere, all the time, until it is defeated. If it becomes law, the next generation of Americans will be forced to set aside domestic priorities to fight a foreign mirage.

Setting the record straight on China’s economy & military

China is not a strategic competitor of the United States. It ranks 72nd among all nations in per capita GDP and 73rd in per capita income. 600 million Chinese earn less than 140 dollars a month.

And that’s after four decades of rapid economic growth. China’s leaders are not obsessed with conquering the world. They are barely holding on at home. Figuring out how to sustainably provide a modest standard of living for the 1.4 billion people they govern – nearly one out of every five people on earth – will remain the overriding priority of Chinese leaders for a very long time to come.

China’s military budget reflects that priority. It has kept the rate of defense spending at a constant and comparatively low two percent of GDP since 1988. Defense spending as a percentage of Chinese government expenditures declined from 17% to 6% over the same period. China’s military is much better trained and equipped than it was, and it has closed the gap in capability with the US military when operating near its own borders. But that is a product of economic growth and geography, not a change in Chinese intentions.


Lessons from the Cold War

One of the defining features of the Cold War was the division of the world into separated economic blocs. The Senate bill will penalize nations for trading with China. It will attempt to divide supply chains, natural resources and communication networks into camps of “ours” and “theirs.” That will reignite battles for influence over the policies and personnel of governments in Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, potentially setting off another wave of US-inspired coups d’état against foreign leaders that lean the wrong way.

The Cold War was also fought at home, and divided Americans into the loyal and the suspect. The Senate bill invites greater government scrutiny of educational exchanges and non-governmental cooperation to weed out potential Chinese influence. It throws a rhetorical sop to progressives concerned about the discriminatory effects on Asian Americans, but empty talk won’t hold back the hate this legislation will unleash after it tags the Chinese as “a political, diplomatic, economic, military, technological, and ideological power” that “will put at risk the future peace, prosperity, and freedom of the international community in the coming decades.”

Destined to fail

The most tragic aspect of the bill is the final section on “ensuring strategic stability.” The Senate naively, or disingenuously, imagines the negative consequences of unleashing a worldwide campaign to discredit the Chinese government and cripple its economy by squeezing its lifelines to global resources and markets can be contained by a dialogue about nuclear weapons. That’s a dialogue worth having, together with a conversation about climate change. But those talks are destined to fail if the United States government believes everything China says and does is part of a quest for global domination.

The Chinese aren’t threatening to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. China’s arsenal is an order of magnitude smaller, kept off alert and designed to be used only for retaliation. I wish I could say the same for the nuclear arsenal of the United States, which is kept on high alert and prepared to strike first. Moreover, China isn’t going to waste money on a new nuclear arms race. It will keep its numbers just high enough to prevent Pentagon war planners from dreaming they could attack China first with impunity, by wiping out China’s ability to retaliate with a combination of first strike capabilities and missile defenses.

Finally, the Senate bill will kick that war planning into high gear by creating a constant state of tension in the Taiwan Strait. The legislation negates the deal on the sovereign status of Taiwan that Nixon struck with Mao in 1972, and discards the arrangements Carter made with Deng when they established diplomatic relations in 1979. The Senate bill requires the US government to engage with Taiwan using the same diplomatic protocols it accords other sovereign states. More importantly, it mandates routine contact between US officials and their counterparts in Taiwan. China will respond to every visit with a demonstration of military resolve. It is only a matter of time before an incident or accident creates a crisis that could lead to war.

This constant state of military tension, and the huge defense budgets that go with it, are another defining feature of a Cold War. This one will not be the same as the contest with the Soviet Union, but we are already seeing the emergence of a new space race and an a dysfunctional struggle to control advanced technology. Scientists, who should be cooperating across national boundaries to better the human condition, will once again be pitted against each other, and the fruits of their labor will be wasted on the business of war.

China’s illiberal and authoritarian government abuses the human rights of its citizens and does not foreswear the use of force to resolve territorial disputes with its neighbors. But China is not the Soviet Union or a strategic competitor of the United States. China’s leaders are not attempting to impose their values on the rest of the world. They want to govern China and provide for its 1.4 billion as they see fit. That presents some genuine problems for the United States and the rest of the world. But the only way to solve them is through dialogue and diplomacy, which the Senate bill will make impossible.

The featured image in this blog is courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.