As US fears of China grow hotter, those with Chinese backgrounds face the coldest war yet
Chi Wang says fears in the US over the threat that China presents is creating a situation unseen since the thaw in relations in 1972, and Chinese students, Chinese experts and even Chinese-Americans are beginning to feel like they don’t belong there
Our newspapers are filled with stories about Russia trying to influence US elections, scientists being arrested as Chinese spies and questions about the loyalties of American leaders and officials. Every day, whether I’m reading sources from the United States, Europe or Hong Kong, I come across someone discussing the ever-growing hostilities and fear. These are stories that would not have been out of place in the 1960s. With tensions running high and mistrust rampant, many are wondering whether the US is entering into a new cold war – with Russia, China or both.
As someone who has been involved with China-US relations since before Nixon’s 1972 visit to China ended the original cold war with China, I am left wondering if a new cold war with China is truly inevitable. Is it simply a given that a rising China and a diminishing America will clash, or is the escalation of conflict one of our own making?
There are definitely areas of concern between the US and China. President Xi Jinping’s China is more assertive and has started presenting itself as a true world power. As the US pulls away from many areas of its previous international influence – leaving international treaties and alienating allies – China is stepping into the spaces left behind.
There are still differences in world views and values between the two countries and there are also ongoing conflicts on issues such as trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea. So yes, there is tension, mistrust and conflict. But does that mean the US and China should be positioned as bitter rivals?
Earlier this month, the Aspen Security Forum took place in Colorado, gathering together sitting and retired officials from the US intelligence community and State Department, think tank experts and media pundits, to discuss the major security issues facing the US today. During the conference, Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, described China as “the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat [Americans] face as a country”. He went on to argue that “China is trying to position itself as the sole dominant superpower, the sole dominant economic power. They're trying to replace the United States in that role”.
Michael Collins, the deputy assistant director of the East Asia Mission Centre at the CIA, made similar remarks. He described the actions of the Chinese Communist Party as “fundamentally a cold war … A country that exploits all avenues of power, licit and illicit, public and private, economic, military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing, without resorting to conflict”.
I am not surprised by these comments. After all, it is the responsibility of the intelligence community to look for potential threats and imagine worst-case scenarios. What worries me, however, is how pervasive such commentary was during the conference and how it involved not just the intelligence community but also policymakers and the media.
I am not suggesting that there are no legitimate areas of conflict between the US and China, nor that the US should shoulder all the blame. Xi’s bold rhetoric, expanding global influence and harsh criticism of the US reasonably put American officials on edge. The Chinese government should certainly consider how their approach to foreign policy might antagonise the US.
However, by labelling the relationship a cold war and painting China as America’s biggest threat, attempting to usurp the US position in the world by any means necessary, the US is only heightening the tension and making conflict more likely.
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I remember the cold war. I had only recently come to the US from China. McCarthyism targeted influential Americans – government officials and movie producers – and the study of China diminished as scholars feared being labelled communists. I see similar trends starting in the US today. Veteran diplomat Susan Thornton faced obstacles to heading the State Department’s East Asian bureau, for instance, due to claims that she was too soft on China.
It might even be worse today. This fear and suspicion is not limited to congressional hearings but pervades every branch of government and aspect of American society. Now even Chinese students and Chinese-Americans are under scrutiny.
Never before have I felt the way I do now – like my “Chineseness” somehow makes me less American or less trustworthy. The US is my home. I have lived in the US for more than 70 years and worked for the US government for 50 years before retiring and, yet, I am beginning to feel unwelcome here.
This growing cold war mentality is dangerous. Not only can it lead to a witch hunt and the shunning of China experts, reducing the number of our experts who can actually make sound China policy, but it also limits the way we think about China. If we label China the enemy, we cannot see them as anything else. We reduce the world to zero-sum outcomes, overlooking the benefits of cooperation. We ignore how complex the US-China relationship is and how globalised the world is today.
It is not possible to stick China behind an iron curtain like we did with the Soviet Union. Our economies are too interconnected and China is already so ingrained in our global system.
If we reduce our relationship to “us versus them”, who would actually take our side? We have been pushing away our allies while China has been creating ties. The US needs to change the way we look at China and the international order.
We should be focusing on strengthening our country and regaining our own alliances and influence. We should find ways to cooperate and build trust while simultaneously working with other countries to address our tangible concerns about China. Because, if we really are in a cold war right now, I’m not sure the US is winning.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation