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Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Japan in June. Chinese analysts say a ‘counter-China’ culture prevails in Washington. Photo: Reuters

Is a China-US cold war inevitable? Chinese analysts say it can’t be ruled out

  • Experts hold little hope for relations when ideology starts to define rivalry between Washington and Beijing
  • ‘Counter-China’ coalition in US could last beyond Trump years as ‘far-right populists’ take grip of policymaking, they say

Competition between the US and China could escalate into a cold war-style rivalry as “counter-China” and “far-right populist” policymakers dominate the White House, Chinese academics say.

Zhao Minghao, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said he surveyed a number of Chinese academics who concluded that “the possibility of a major US-China confrontation and armed conflict can by no means be ruled out”.

Writing in the Chinese Journal of International Politics, Zhao said the US-China rivalry went far beyond trade and “the shifting mood in favour of a [US] post-engagement policy towards China” would go beyond President Donald Trump’s years in the White House.

“To some extent, [the consensus] is a counter-China coalition composed of far-right populists, security hawks and hard-to-impress radicals – one which calls for a bellicose approach to dealing with China,” he said.

One of the academics surveyed was Yan Xuetong, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who was pessimistic about relations because the tensions between Washington and Beijing were becoming more ideological than economic.

“If ideological rivalry were to become a core component of US-China competition, proxy wars would break out between the two nations, similar to the US-USSR clashes during the cold war era,” Yan was quoted as saying.

Last week, the US officially named China as a “currency manipulator” and accused Beijing of influencing the exchange rate between the yuan and the dollar to gain “unfair competitive advantage in international trade”.

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Washington also said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would work with the International Monetary Fund “to eliminate the unfair competitive advantage created by China’s latest actions”.

The US acted after the yuan passed the seven-per-dollar level for the first time since 2008.

Zhao quoted Yan as saying that competition between the nations was also inevitable because China, the rising power, was challenging the US – the dominant power.

The PLA Navy and its US counterpart are facing off in the South China Sea as part of their ‘tit-for-tat military strategies’. Photo: Xinhua

“China has been narrowing the gap between its comprehensive national strength and that of the United States [a development that] might be the cause of the growing competition between the two nations,” Yan said.

Zhao said scholars expected military tensions between the two countries to intensify, especially at sea where China has been extending its operations to protect its territorial claims and the US has responded with “freedom of navigation exercises”, resulting in what Hu Bo, a senior researcher at Peking University, called “tit-for-tat military strategies”.

US flexes military muscle in South China Sea with nuclear aircraft carrier port call in the Philippines

“A new strategic equilibrium between the two powers has emerged along the waters near the first island chain,” Hu said, referring to a demarcation line from the southern Japan to southern boundary of the South China Sea that has figured in Chinese military planning since the 1950s.

Hu was quoted as saying that the US would have to accept China’s advantage in its coastal waters but that he expected the equilibrium between rival naval forces farther afield to last for between 10 and 20 years.