Forget a cold war and the TikTok, WeChat bans. Is the US preparing for a hot war with China?
- The White House has sent mixed signals on China, agreeing to hold talks while announcing a ban on Chinese apps
- But the hope that these are just Washington’s negotiation tactics is fading, amid worries of a potential armed conflict
In the past few days, several developments have rippled across the communities that closely watch US-China ties. In some ways, these narratives appear to be at odds with each other but, as is so often the case, the contradictions are where the real meaning can be found.
Whether the anticipated meeting between Lighthizer and Liu takes place, how should we understand this story, presumably a deliberate White House leak, given Washington’s increasing political and economic aggression against Beijing?
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In the context of Trump’s well-established approach to negotiations, and Lighthizer’s famous dictum about focusing on points of leverage, should the new attack on Chinese tech firms be seen as an attempt to merely create new leverage in the trade talks, or a Cold War tactic aimed at re-establishing American strategic dominance, or both?
Meanwhile, Davis’ and Wei’s book is being widely read on both sides of the Pacific, with Chinese versions already being passed around by key influencers. The general consensus indicates that it is a smart book, one that aims to explain rather than to point fingers. Amid its numerous conclusions, three are most compelling.
The first and overarching conclusion is that a new cold war is already under way, belying the book’s title.
The second, which the book opens with, is that there is a growing consensus among American policymakers and business leaders dating back to 2018 at least that a hot war is likely within the next 20 years, and that this thinking underpins many of the ongoing developments.
It would not be foolish to think that Washington strategists anticipated this development and welcome the competition. Indeed, the past weeks have seen other developments that have further darkened the already solemn mood in Beijing.
These include yet another anti-China speech from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accusations from the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre that China is trying to meddle in the upcoming US elections, and an updated Congressional Research Service Report on US-China strategic competition that worries whether the US is rushing towards a potential war unprepared and without proper oversight.
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While emphasising the need to safeguard positive relations, Yang acknowledges the current dangers and describes the US side as embracing a Cold War mentality and a zero-sum approach that risks irreversible damage.
While many today are focused on WeChat and TikTok, and others are fretting over the US elections and the unrelenting tit-for-tat provocations, the longer view is even more disturbing.
The hope that these are all just negotiation tactics – or that a more compromising leader may take power in Washington, a more cautious approach will emerge in Beijing, or that other powers can help calm both sides – has been replaced with increasingly grimmer possibilities.
In other words, we’re long past debating whether a cold war is coming. It’s here, and by some accounts Washington is preparing for a hot war. Are you?
Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai