Illustration: Craig Stephens
Xu Xiaobing
Xu Xiaobing

Can China and the US pursue virtuous competition, rather than vicious rivalry, to avoid Cold War 2.0?

  • As Joe Biden’s administration takes its cue from Donald Trump’s anti-China policy, the walls being erected range from investment controls to boycott calls
  • The G7’s infrastructure plan, in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is just the latest sign of increasing rivalry
Ever since the Trump administration targeted China as a strategic competitor, and with the Biden administration so far largely following Trump’s established rules against China, Sino-US competition and confrontation have become a feature of the times.
For many, this “great power” competition has caused a disturbing sense of déjà vu and feelings of uneasiness: are we already in a Cold War 2.0?
An increasing number of visible and invisible walls are being erected, whether they be trade and investment controls, science and technology barriers, visa denials, app bans, unfriendly polls and poisonous media articles, calls to boycott the Olympics, and other vitriolic exchanges, hate crimes against Asians, racial discrimination, anti-intellectual culture or identity politics. 
These walls even extend beyond the Earth into outer space. Thanks to the 2011 Wolf Amendment, the US and China are exploring Mars in complete isolation. Separate space stations are becoming the new reality. 


Chinese astronauts explore space station that will be their home for three months

Chinese astronauts explore space station that will be their home for three months
There has been a surge in politically motivated legislation and lawsuits, with fabricated accusations of espionage and national security breaches frequently reported.
Nations are capriciously discarding concluded agreements and contracts more easily, acting on narrow political impulses while paying lip service to the “rules-based international order”.
Insulting sanctions against nations, companies and individuals as well as rude diplomacy that breaks protocols have become more common. Fake news and distorted press campaigns from the mainstream media in the West have been widely criticised both at home and abroad.
We are witnessing the return of overt and covert arms races. The display of force has intensified in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, for example.

In short, as the well-known Chinese verse goes, “the wind sweeping through the tower heralds a coming storm in the mountains”.


More footage emerges from 2018 near collision of US and China warships in South China Sea

More footage emerges from 2018 near collision of US and China warships in South China Sea

However, while being a party to the confrontation, China is neither the former Soviet Union nor the same country it was 40 years ago, when at the end of 1978, China adopted the reform and opening up policy and established diplomatic relations with the US.

Nor is the United States what it was 30 years ago, when in 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart and the superiority of the US over the USSR was at its height. The best-known final judgment on the Cold War was American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement that it signalled “the end of the history”.

US’ distorted view of the China threat risks creating a cold war nightmare

In 2021, the year in which the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary, the US is again containing China. Among the numerous laws aimed at China, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 authorises US$300 million each year to counter the “influence of the Chinese Communist Party” globally.
Like it or loathe it, China’s importance and influence is widely felt throughout the world, even in the country’s absence at the recent G7 summit. 
To be sure, China is not competing for the ability to destroy the world by having more nuclear weapons than others, or seeking to dominate the world with a military that’s armed to the teeth. China is recognised mainly for its own outstanding performance and achievement as well as its contribution to and outlook on global development. 


Belt and Road Initiative explained

Belt and Road Initiative explained

In 2012, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party announced that it would promote a “community of shared future for mankind”. The Congress pointed out that for humanity there is only one Earth, and people all over the world have long been yearning for peace and development. In essence, the concept calls for building a “community of coexistence and co-development for mankind”.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping further proposed the Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect the world with modern infrastructure as a major step towards building a “community of coexistence and co-development for mankind”.
Given that the belt and road has had global repercussions, eight years later the G7 has offered in response a competing global infrastructure plan, “Build Back Better World”.

Why G7 leaders’ rival plan to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is wrong-headed

This is not merely a sign of arriving at a crossroads but, rather, of the heightened competition and confrontation China is facing from the US.

China upholds the values of inclusive and cooperative multilateralism, rather than forming an exclusive and confrontational coterie, such as the Indo-Pacific strategy.


Britain’s new aircraft carrier joins Nato exercises ahead of Indo-Pacific voyage

Britain’s new aircraft carrier joins Nato exercises ahead of Indo-Pacific voyage
In the meantime, China is not interested in launching unilateral sanctions unless provoked to take countermeasures. The newly adopted legislation against foreign sanctions says it all. 

Nor has China – which suffered in the past from the actions of Western imperialists – inherited these aggressive and bullying traditions. Instead, it learned from historical lessons and is now better equipped to defend its own sovereignty, security and development interests.

Moreover, since the late 1970s, an open China has not only shown its firm support of, but also benefited from, the rules-based international order in accordance with the principles and rules of the UN Charter and international law.

Looking to the future, virtuous Sino-US competition can contribute to world peace and development by promoting essential infrastructure, life-saving vaccines, a better environment and a diversified world, while vicious competition will only lead to entrenched distrust and division, unwarranted charges and sanctions, irrational political and ideological attacks, ugly legal or diplomatic battles, and even a real war, whether hot or cold. 

More than 70 years ago during China’s civil war, when an awakened nation fought for and founded a new China, the US chose to support the nationalist government, which was defeated and fled to Taiwan in 1949. It took the US Seventh Fleet and the Korean war to save it.

Seventy years later, when a reviving China is making unprecedented progress in its national rejuvenation by emerging from chronic poverty, the US has provocatively chosen to back the separatist government in Taiwan. This may set off the unfinished Chinese civil war. Will the US again be left standing on the wrong side of the history of China? You bet.

Xu Xiaobing is director of the Centre of International Law Practice at Shanghai Jiao Tong University Law School