With China, a ‘Cold War’ Analogy Is Lazy and Dangerous

Nov. 2, 2021

  • By Joseph S. Nye Jr.

” . . . On the economic level, the United States and China are deeply interdependent. The United States had more than half a trillion dollars in trade with China in 2020. While some voices in Washington talk about “decoupling,” it would be foolish to think we can separate our economy completely from China without enormous costs. And we should not expect other countries to do so either, since China is reportedly now the largest trading partner of more countries than the United States.

The social fabrics of the United States and China are also deeply intertwined: There are millions of social connections, from students and tourists and others, between the two countries. And it’s physically impossible to decouple ecological issues like pandemics and climate change.

Interdependence is a double-edged sword. It creates networks of sensitivity to what is happening in another country that can encourage caution. But it also creates vulnerabilities that both Beijing and Washington can try to manipulate as tools of influence.

Despite the above factors, a two-dimensional mind-set assumes the United States can take on China largely because of its military superiority. While China is modernizing its forces, the United States is still the only truly global power. (Though it’s unclear how long that will last.) We must carefully plot our horizontal moves — like improving relations with India and reinforcing our alliance with Japan — on the traditional military board of chess to maintain the balance of power in Asia. At the same time, we cannot continue to ignore the different power relations on the economic or transnational boards — and how those levels interact. If we do, we will suffer.OPINION CONVERSATIONThe climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?

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On the economic board, the distribution of power is multipolar, with the United States, China, Europe and Japan the largest players. And on the transnational board, when it comes to issues such as climate change and pandemics, nongovernmental actors play powerful roles and no country is in control.

And yet, the United States has an inadequate trade policy for East Asia, which leaves the field to China. On transnational issues, the United States risks letting sour relations with Beijing jeopardize climate goals. China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has warned America not to expect climate negotiations to remain an oasis in a desert of overall relations.”