Are we entering a new Cold War – this time with China?
That is a question I will be discussing with Chinese diplomats, businessmen, think tank experts, and academics this week, as I begin a visit to Beijing and three other Chinese cities. The issue, now being hotly debated in Washington, turns 25 years of bipartisan U.S. policy toward China on its ear.
Such a question would have sounded strange 18 months ago when President Trump was touting his brilliant relationship with Xi Jinping, whom he hosted at Mar-a-Lago. Or a year ago when the president was tweeting about the amazing dinner the Chinese leader laid on for him in Beijing's Forbidden City. Or even last spring when the White House was lavishly lauding Xi for his help with squeezing North Korea.
That was then.
More recently, the president has imposed an escalating series of trade tariffs on Beijing, which has reciprocated against U.S. exports. And early this month, Vice President Pence gave a stunning China speech that slammed Beijing's "economic aggression" and military expansion and accused the Chinese of meddling in the 2018 elections.
Many of Pence's economic points were valid, including Chinese theft of intellectual property and forcing U.S. companies to transfer technology. (The claim of election meddling, on the other hand, offered no credible evidence.)
But the core of the speech was this: The White House now considers China a competitor that presents a threat to America. (This concept was first proposed in the president's National Security Strategy in December, but that dull bureaucratic document got scant attention while the Trump-Xi palship was still on.)
This policy shift is big.
For 25 years, presidents from both parties believed a rising China could be peacefully integrated into the world order. However, the White House apparently now views Beijing as a dangerous strategic rival, bent on surpassing America economically and supplanting U.S. influence globally.
I say "apparently" because it's unclear whether the speech is another example of Trump using a trade war to squeeze a better deal out of Beijing.
Yet there is no obvious template for any kind of "war" with China. Especially if it escalates beyond trade.
The Cold War with Russia was a standoff between a poor, communist country whose global standing was based on oil revenues and nuclear weapons. Contrast that with China, which has mixed communism and capitalism to amass huge financial reserves and the world's second-largest economy.
China is intricately linked to America by global supply chains, huge purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds, and massive exchanges of students, visitors, and experts. Divorcing these two countries is hard to imagine.
Moreover, Pence's speech gives America too much credit for China's stunning rise to near-superpower status. Yes, U.S. markets for cheap Chinese goods were key, but so was the Chinese work ethic and the skills of past Chinese leaders (despite the sad human-rights record).
I saw China before its growth explosion. On my first visit, in 1986, Pudong – the vibrant newer half of Shanghai that looks like Chicago plus New York City – was virtually an empty marsh. Chengdu, now the New York-like capital of Sichuan province, which I will visit again on this trip, was a sleepy market town. Shenzhen, the massive metropolis known for technological innovation, was a muddy village. You get the picture.
So it's hard to foresee how the United States can contain China's continued rise.
Yet there is good reason to worry about political developments in Beijing. President Xi has elevated himself to the status of Mao Zedong and eliminated the previous two-term limit for presidents.
"Xi Jinping wants China to become a global superpower. He is very explicit," says Elizabeth Economy, author of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.
Xi has promised to catch up with the United States in many areas of high tech by 2025, and to restore China to great-power status by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People's Republic of China. That includes building a military capable of "global combat capabilities."
Xi promised President Obama he wouldn't militarize the South China Sea, a major international transit route, and then did so. "China's risk tolerance is higher than ours," said top Asia expert Michael Green, vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking at the Jamestown Foundation's recent conference on China security issues. "They are pushing below the level of war to show they are more committed than we are to defend our allies."
And China is making tens of billions of dollars in risky loans to developing countries in Asia and Africa – the so-called Belt and Road Initiative – to build infrastructure and link up land and sea trade routes. This includes financing ports in countries such as Sri Lanka that may become Chinese naval bases.
In other words, China intends to keep rising.
A test of Trump's and Xi's intentions will come next month, when the two leaders attend the G-20 economic summit in Buenos Aires. "The Chinese are eager for a Trump-Xi meeting at the G-20," says Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue. "They have lost faith in underlings and hope for a personal breakthrough."
I look forward to conversations with experts in China about what kind of breakthrough they envision. At this point it gets hard to see where the points of convergence still lie.