Beating China: The New Cold War

Far too often, pundits and politicians alike make the case that America should avoid another cold war, this time with China.  There is a problem with this argument. America doesn’t get to choose whether or not to start another cold war.  Just as it was not America that initiated a coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and it was not America that brutally put down a rebellion in Hungary in 1956, it is not America that is stealing intellectual property and obstructing international waters in 2019.  China chose to start this cold war; we are already in the middle of it.  America doesn’t get a say unless it wants to lie down and lose.  It isn’t the same type of cold war, and each side has different objectives, but it is contentious no less.

If America wants to win the Second Cold War, it has to do several broad things, but for one it has first to acknowledge that it is already ongoing.  The Trump administration took an excellent first step.  The administration’s national security strategy admits that we are moving back into a period of great power competition and seeks to develop a plan to succeed in that environment.  China is run by an expansionist totalitarian regime that aims, for the first time, to extend its influence to shift the global balance of power and international order into its favor and away from the West’s.  America has to again come to the understanding that the world is competitive and to remain the global superpower; it will have to face challengers.  There are many countries that would love to challenge America; China happens to be the one that has the best chance. 

The western structure of the international order which America has led has created an incredible global economy that has pulled endless numbers of people and even entire nations out of poverty.  For instance, Poland in 1990 had a GDP per capita of $5,509 (World Bank, constant 2010 US$), in 2017 it had a GDP per capita of $15,822.  That's an increase of nearly 300%.  A similar pattern repeats within other former communist or authoritarian states.  According to the World Bank, in 1990 36% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, 25 years later less than 10% do.  The West’s emphasis on economic liberalization is working.

Amongst all this, the United States has prospered too, as the international order since WWII has been structured to its benefit.  U.S. GDP per capita has increased by over 300% from $17,550 (World Bank, constant 2010 US$) in 1960 to $53,128 in 2017.  For this progress to happen, a massive security umbrella was needed.  Following WWII, the United States created that structure and has kept international markets open and shipping lanes protected.  In recent years, however, amongst political strain in the United States, that umbrella has begun to show cracks. 

The uncertainty of U.S. commitments has emboldened China, which has begun to project its power into one of the most critical regions in the world, the South China Sea.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has grown significantly in the 21st century while also shrinking the technology gap between it and the U.S. Navy.  China has begun to again ratchet up tensions over its claims on the South China Sea as if it were land.  These claims are well within international waters and have no basis in international law.  A UN tribunal recently ruled as much. The PLAN has constructed artificial islands throughout the South China Sea to establish a Chinese military presence.  Chinese vessels have also swarmed foreign ships in international waters and physically obstructed their movementOver half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage proceeds through various straits around Indonesia with most then venturing into the South China Sea.  Claims and obstructions on key shipping routes, unopposed, could give the Chinese a massive amount of leverage over the world’s economics.

America must face these challenges if it wishes to continue to prosper, aid other economies, and be the global leader.  China is positioning itself as a direct challenger to Western order and prosperity.  If America wants to stop China, it must adhere to a few principles.  First, stay out of conflicts that are of limited strategic importance and that risk precious American blood and treasure. 

Secondly, the United States needs to strengthen its alliances with willing partners.  Even amongst the turmoil and perils of trade war with allies, the Trump administration has somewhat moved in the right direction, calling on allies to reject the development of Chinese corporations that could be involved in cyber espionage.  The United States has also pleaded with allies to pick up more of the load when it comes to their defense, thereby relieving a thinly stretched U.S. military. 

Third, the United States needs to rebuild and increase the size of its Navy.  The United States must continue to keep shipping lanes open and patrol waters in the Pacific.  It is no secret the Navy’s advantage has eroded.  Underfunding and reductions in fleet size have left the Navy starving for more warships and the budget to build them. 

Lastly, the U.S. government must put diplomatic pressure on the Chinese much the way Reagan did to the Soviet Union.  Reagan correctly recognized holes in the Soviet bloc; economic instability, social unrest, and military entanglements.  Reagan’s diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, and military buildup pushed the Soviets over the edge.  China has its issues; an aging workforce, evidence of lying about their economic statistics, and an estimated debt to GDP ratio of 300%

By adhering to realist principles and replicating Reagan’s pressure, the United States can stop China’s erosion of the international order and prevent the growth of anti-western influence.  It is clear that China seeks to disrupt the global order that has been immensely successful.  The United States must begin to accept the reality of a competitive international arena and prepare to deal with the impending Chinese threat.  America’s goals should be the prevention of expansion of Chinese influence and the preservation of the Western international order.  The Trump administration has the United States on the right path, but there is much more work that will be required. 

Errata: Increase in GDP per capita numbers for US and Poland corrected from 300% to 200%