The new cold war with China

Having lived through the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the ridiculous hysteria over Japan during the 1980s, and the post 9/11 hysteria over Iraq, I am dismayed by the bipartisan attempt to gin up a cold war with China. Especially given that Russia is a far greater threat. It has far more nukes, and it seized the Crimea from Ukraine.

Thus it’s nice to see a few thoughtful observors pushing back on the cold war narrative. Peter Beinart has a WaPo piece entitled “Biden’s Taiwan Policy Is Truly, Deeply Reckless“:

By keeping U.S. relations with Taiwan unofficial, the “one China” fiction helped Beijing imagine that peaceful reunification remained possible. Which gave it an excuse not to invade.

Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden team is now progressively chipping away at this bargain. Last summer, Democrats removed the phrase “one China” from their platform. . . .

What’s crucial is that the Taiwanese people preserve their individual freedom and the planet does not endure a third world war. The best way for the United States to pursue those goals is by maintaining America’s military support for Taiwan while also maintaining the “one China” framework that for more than four decades has helped keep the peace in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Hawks will call this appeasement. So be it. Ask them how many American lives they’re willing to risk so the United States can have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The FT warns that the US military industrial establishment is playing a dangerous game:

Chinese military aircraft are flying into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on an almost daily basis now, and those flights are increasing in both frequency and range.

But rather than a step towards war, these moves are more likely to be part of a campaign to intimidate Taiwan with so-called grey-zone tactics. Constant fear-mongering over the risk of a Taiwan war only plays into the hands of such a Chinese strategy.

Some security experts see the US Indo-Pacific Command’s warnings of a heightened war risk as an attempt to secure budget funds for propping up the US military presence in the region, as well as to influence the Biden administration’s China policy review.

“This is a defence-driven assessment in the US,” rather than a systemic analysis of Chinese interests in the region, said Bonnie Glaser, a veteran China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US.* “They have really done a disservice to American national interests.”

The Economist warns of a groupthink on the issue:

“It doesn’t take any bravery to be a China hawk today. It takes bravery to not be one,” says a former official who advised several presidents on China. He and many others see a desire for a new cold war in Washington. . . .

Expertise about China is not necessary. Within government, analysts who once focused on war zones have pivoted to China. Those who preach moderation towards the Chinese government risk being tarred by the most strident hawks as apologists, their motives called into question. Esteemed China specialists who were previously called on by the White House for advice have fallen out of favour.

Commenters on this blog also question my motives.

In Australia, it’s even worse:

The government of Scott Morrison, prime minister since 2018, relishes calling China out. By now, though, the rhetorical flourishes are starting to sound as though it were girding for war. Mr Morrison says Australia must speak with “one voice” on foreign policy, as if scrappy debate was uncalled for, or even unpatriotic. . . .

One veteran Canberra hand describes a dangerous “ideological intolerance” in which moderate voices are drowned out and the debate about China is reduced to emotion. Another senator, Eric Abetz, last year even called on Chinese-Australians appearing before his committee to denounce the Communist Party. That points to a further risk, says Greg Barns, a lawyer: pinko paranoia plays to a xenophobic, racist undercurrent that has long run through Australian life.

Such an undercurrent risks resurfacing if Chinese-Australians face questions or abuse about their loyalty. If the hawks’ tactics end up making Australia seem a less civil, tolerant or welcoming place, then the country will be the poorer for it.

Is China trying to take over the world? You be the judge:

China has blamed the abrupt US withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan for a surge in attacks, after multiple explosions at a girls’ school in Kabul on Saturday killed more than 60 people, most of them female students.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was “shocked” by the attacks and “deeply saddened” by the death toll. She also called on Washington to pull out troops “in a responsible manner”.

Here’s a question for those of you who think China’s just like the old Soviet Union. Would the Russians have complained about the US withdrawing troops from a country right on the Soviet Union’s southern border?

PS. Speaking of China, the new census showed a huge imbalance in population growth, with some provinces losing population and others growing rapidly. I notice that most of China’s population growth occurred in 4 provinces (Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian.) Those also happen to be China’s most market-oriented economies. It seems like the Chinese people are moving toward capitalism. Perhaps they don’t agree with Western pundits who attribute China’s success to statist economic policies. In contrast, China’s most statist provinces (in the northeast) all lost population–even the one on the coast.

PPS. Sometime this year, Guangdong province will surpass Japan in population.



29 Responses to “The new cold war with China”

  1. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    18. May 2021 at 12:05

    Excellent post.
    I especially loved this quote: “It doesn’t take any bravery to be a China hawk today. It takes bravery to not be one.”

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. May 2021 at 12:56

    Thanks David.

  3. Gravatar of sean sean
    18. May 2021 at 13:14

    Not sure I agree Russia is the greater threat.

    Russia doesn’t have the economy to be more than a regional power. China has the economy to be a global power and eclipse the US. I’m not saying China will go down this path, but its the main reason people get concerned about china and not russia.

  4. Gravatar of Stefan Stefan
    18. May 2021 at 14:04

    Guangdong would almost certainly have surpassed Japan by the end of 2020 without the pandemic.

  5. Gravatar of David S David S
    18. May 2021 at 14:11

    I would hate to have a shooting war with China over anything, and I hope that a lot of people in power in the CCP feel the same way about a war with the U.S.

    Taiwan could be described in terms of old fashioned “domino theory”–but I doubt that Chinese agents are undermining Taiwan from within. The logistics of an invasion, and the fact that you can’t conceal the mobilization before the invasion, make it a super crazy move on the part of China.

    As much as I don’t like China being a bully in the South China Sea, they could point to the U.S. troops stationed in the region as a provocation. Would it be crazy for us to draw down some forces in S. Korea in exchange for some cooler behavior from everyone?

    Multilateral talks among all the nations in that region to reduce force levels and WMD’s across the board would a really nice idea. If I were running China I would see that as a good thing–spend less money on military equipment and improve relationships with everyone.

    Southeast Asia could be like the Euro region (minus the common currency) with China playing the role of Germany–big and rich, but not militaristic. And they could achieve that without having to fight and lose two world wars.

  6. Gravatar of JHE JHE
    18. May 2021 at 16:59

    In purely geopolitical terms, Russia probably is the biggest threat to global peace, because it has such a massive revanchist gripe over what was lost when the USSR collapsed. Makes Taiwan, Mongolia, Eastern Siberia, and the South China Sea look like peanuts (in fact, China’s current territory is extremely favorable relative to where Han Chinese traditionally lived).

    That said, China’s political system truly is an outlier. Russia has an authoritarian strongman system similar to that which operates in a very large part of the world. By contrast, the limits on the political space in China are matched in only a handful of other countries. And, most of those peer countries do much less to restrict the ability of their citizens to freely access information via the internet, albeit perhaps only due to a lack of capacity. Aside from total failed states, probably the only politically less free places in the world are Eritrea and North Korea, with Cuba and Turkmenistan being peer countries.

    Does that mean a war with China is inevitable? I certainly hope not and I think a lot of the recent rise in hawkishness is deeply short-sighted. But, China really does stand out for its total deprivation of political freedom.

    Also, on Taiwan, the U.S. shouldn’t be drawn by the Chinese government’s bluffing. The CPC has done great without ever possessing Taiwan and the idea that it “needs” Taiwan for legitimacy is a fantasy it has concocted to try and scare the U.S. into backing off without a fight. Contrary to the current mythos, the CPC is not fundamentally a nationalist party…the nationalists were the guys they beat. Mao was a true communist internationalist, hence he turned to Russia in spite of all the incompetent State Department officials predicting that he would be a ‘Titoist’ because of Chinese nationalist grievances against Russia. The later leaders were certainly somewhat more nationalist, but the party’s legitimacy is fundamentally based on the idea that it founded a “new China” and not that it is a paragon of nationalism.

  7. Gravatar of Lizard Man Lizard Man
    18. May 2021 at 17:59

    China has territorial disputes with most of its maritime neighbors. I think that if push came to shove, the most rational thing for the US to do would be to do nothing, so as to avoid war with China. But it seems like very few politicians or people in the military industrial complex wants to admit this, in part to dissuade China from being more aggressive, and in part probably to justify more military spending and higher social status for the military and defense contractors.

    Now, a strategy of kicking the can down the road for as long as possible might be a good plan. China’s population will be getting older, wealthier, and smaller, meaning that the political will for provocation and war might diminish over time. Military drones might also change how a war in the region would play out, and would likely make an amphibious assault on Taiwan even more difficult. But the US engaging in provocation seems contrary to the goal of postponing any potential military conflict for as long as possible. Giving leaders in Beijing as much leeway as possible to show that they are being tough and developing China’s military might seems like a much better strategy than daring them to prove that they are tough and strong.

  8. Gravatar of Lizard Man Lizard Man
    18. May 2021 at 18:05

    I would be very interested to hear prof. Sumner’s thoughts on the rise of anti-PRC sentiment among the US elite. My best guess is that it is some combination of political opportunism in the wake of the 2016 election, and also the realization that China as a nation is unlikely to accept subservience to the USA, and will strongly challenge the USA when it is in the interest of the Chinese nation to do so.

  9. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    19. May 2021 at 04:25

    I think many of the comments against the so-called hawks are red herrings. This does not mean what the hawks are doing is correct. My analogy would be the McCarthy era——McCarthy was one giant red herring (claiming Hollywood ex-communist party members were a threat to National security, for example). However, this did not mean the Soviet Union was not a true threat.

    If I were to project the anti-hawks view into the future, my guess is that they believe if we can stop kicking the bees nest, eventually the one China concept will get realized voluntarily and peacefully. That would be nice.

    China versus Russia is another red herring. Assume Russia is a bigger threat——-which I do not agree with——that does not mean China not a threat. Was Germany a bigger threat than Japan?

    Of course we do not want to fight a war over Taiwan. The anti-hawks (hawks talk more than act) seem to think we can “tactical” our way out of this. Agree with “one China” but give military aid to Taiwan.

    That should work for a while——cannot imagine China is interested in a war either. But as long as the CCP is in charge it’s direction seems obvious.

    My real concern is the US is getting weaker——-because we believe less and less in ourselves as a good nation—-and we keep borrowing against the future and promising to do more of it. We believe in crazy things—or pretend to.

    I am not sure we can prevent China from doing anything it wants.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. May 2021 at 08:18

    Sean, Yes, China may become a bigger threat in the future, but right now Russia has far more military power, and is far more aggressive.

    Stefan, That may be true.

    David, Good comment, but I still worry that the Chinese might foolishly try to invade Taiwan. Even a 20% chance is kind of scary.

    JHE, I disagree about nationalism. China is no longer communist, but has become highly nationalist under Xi. It’s a Han nationalist regime.

    Lizard, At an emotional level, the cause of anti-Chinese hysteria is probably the same as the cause of anti-Japanese hysteria in the 1980s (even though the specific issues are often quite different.) East Asians are viewed as “the other”, which is why we cared much more about our trade deficits with Japan than with Germany. It’s also why we fear China more than Russia.

    I think we need to honor our defense commitments with Japan and other Asia nations, but we shouldn’t go our of our way to antagonize China. That’s my point.

  11. Gravatar of JHE JHE
    19. May 2021 at 12:01

    “JHE, I disagree about nationalism. China is no longer communist, but has become highly nationalist under Xi. It’s a Han nationalist regime.”

    I was probably a little bit too broad in my dismissal of Chinese nationalism, but I still think it is a deeply overrated phenomenon. Look at other East Asian countries. The vast majority of the population in those countries are happy to say outright what educated people in the West (even most conservative politicians) would totally reject: our country is a country of the Korea/Japanese/Chinese race; that is good and we don’t want to change that. Anti-Japanese nationalism is probably an even bigger force Korean in politics than it is in CPC propaganda.

    What makes the CPC distinctive is its totalitarianism, not its advocacy of race-based nationalism, which is commonplace in its region and only really abnormal in a few parts of the world.

  12. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    19. May 2021 at 15:34

    Keep pounding this drum (or maybe I should say keep strumming this harp). If George Washington were alive today he’d be wondering how we lost the plot so badly.

  13. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    19. May 2021 at 18:06


    George Washington sensibly had no interest in confronting powers oceans away. His ‘plot’ had nothing to do with global power projection.

  14. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    19. May 2021 at 18:36


  15. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    20. May 2021 at 03:58

    I disagree with the statement that China is moving toward Capitalism. On the basic level, capitalism means private control of means of production. In 2021 the Chines State and CCP has the most control over the means of production in decades. Famous billionaires get disappeared, the rule of law is constantly deteriorating. The CCP is engaged in control experiments like Social Credit system and it gets more and more overall control.

    If you made this comment in 2008 I’d agree. But since Xi Jinping got the power the trajectory is very worrying. Additionally, what is the alternative? As of now CCP has border disputes with 17 countries. They are engaged in increasingly hostile foreign policy. They are increasingly more nationalistic and overall more prone to flexing their muscles often in very childish manner with insults like during latest Alaska talks. They ramp up their foreign propaganda not dissimilar to what Russia is doing including using networks of organizations that were created in the “grey area” past like Confucius institute. One after one organizations are encompassed under the CCP control.

    So again, what is the supposed solution? More appeasement? I do not think this will work.

  16. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    20. May 2021 at 06:09

    @JV Dubois:

    Solution to what? Are you suggesting we can do anything about how China’s government runs their country?

  17. Gravatar of Disillusioned Former Modi Supporter Disillusioned Former Modi Supporter
    20. May 2021 at 07:20

    I mean, you can hardly blame Australia right? China openly tries to subvert Australian democracy, they have a right to respond and fight back.

    In the same way, to give fairness to all sides, we shouldn’t be silent when Russia tries to subvert our democracy.

    And this begs the question … appeasement is fine, but some actions deserve a response. The gambit between influence vs. money … Chinese officials are happy to give money in exchange for influence. Is that a tradeoff we are comfortable making?

    China’s actions in the South China sea deserve a response. Maintaining Chinese fictional history only works for so long until that history becomes, actually we used to own everything so its ours now.

    One thing I find missing throughout any discussion here is that, well, the most intelligent people I have listened to on this have said that China doesn’t really have a strategy here.

    Xi Jinping isn’t calling all the shots. China has a political environment much like America do. All Xi Jingping represents is a nationalist force.

    So he signs onto anything that his subordinates claim increases Chinese nationalism. The Navy, Army, local militias, local authorities, all have competiting interests. Sometimes contradictory.

    China appeases surrounding neighbors with vaccines … and then sends warships. It tries to form closer economic bonds with Europe … then burns bridges. It tries to forge an alliance with Islamic nations … then genocides the Uighers.

    There is no master strategy, there is no plan. If a local subordinate frames his plan and his interests in terms of nationalism, it will be approved by Xi Jinping. It is like any other beaurcracy.

    So I agree and disagree. Agree that treating China like one unit without knowledge of what’s actually going on is a dangerous trend. People like to make the Soviet analogy and propose containment… that is a very dangerous path forward. Disagree that appeasing Chinese nationism is the best way forward.

    Rather, imo it is important to exploit the contradictions in Chinese foreign policy and use that to the US advantage.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. May 2021 at 07:57

    JV, In some respects China is moving away from capitalism, but in many more respects it is moving closer to capitalism.

    And what are the 17 countries with which China has a border dispute? With how many countries does Taiwan have a border dispute? 18? After all, Taiwan claims Mongolia and Mainland China does not.

    By far the largest disputed island in the South China Sea is claimed by China and a bunch of southeast Asian nations. Guess who occupies it? Taiwan. Is that one of your border disputes?

    Disillusioned, You said:

    “China appeases surrounding neighbors with vaccines … and then sends warships.”

    Please explain what it means to “send warships”. Does the US “send warships” when our navy patrols the South China Sea (as it should)? I honestly don’t know what send warships means.

    Also, in my post I said:

    “The best way for the United States to pursue those goals is by maintaining America’s military support for Taiwan”

    I honestly don’t know why you regard this as “appeasement”. Did I say I favor appeasement? I don’t get it.

  19. Gravatar of Disillusioned Former Modi Supporter Disillusioned Former Modi Supporter
    20. May 2021 at 08:28

    I mean, there are plenty of instances where a southeast Asian nation tries to build something in the South China Sea and China, under the guise of a “fishing expedition” sends over an armed group of 100 “fishing boats” 50 miles from the building site, openly threatening them.

    Many southeast Asian nations try to contract with oil companies to develop fuel supplies and China sends over a ship and scares the oil company off.

    Comparing this behavior to American patrols is false equivalence. America tries to secure the sea. It does not claim ownership over it. It doesn’t use that authority, governed by international law, to threaten other countries (or at least not to the same extent).

  20. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    20. May 2021 at 11:24

    “I think we need to honor our defense commitments with Japan and other Asia nations,”

    If you read Article 5, you will notice that America’s only obligation to Japan is to “act” in an unspecified way if Japan is attacked.

    The U.S. “declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes

  21. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    20. May 2021 at 16:01

    @Scott: “And what are the 17 countries with which China has a border dispute?”

    Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar and of course Tibet.

    “By far the largest disputed island in the South China Sea”

    No, China disputes everything. And I did not even talk about the territory China wants after the recent Alaska talks.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. May 2021 at 16:36

    Disillusion, You said:

    “America tries to secure the sea. It does not claim ownership over it.”

    That’s just false. We claim a 200 mile economic zone, just like China, and we enforce it with our military.

    I’m not saying I agree with China on the islands in the South China Sea, but there’s a legitimate disagreement over who actually owns those islands. I don’t see people criticizing Taiwan on this issue.

    JV. I don’t agree. Taiwan controls the largest disputed island in the South China Sea. I’d suggest doing some research before commenting here.

    I also seriously doubt there is a border dispute with Singapore, which is nowhere near China. And there is no border dispute with Taiwan, which agrees with China on borders; the disagreement is on who is the legitimate government. There is no border dispute with Tibet because the Dali Llama says Tibet is part of China. There is no border dispute with Myanmar. There is no border dispute with Mongolia. (But Taiwan claims Mongolia.) There is no border dispute with Laos. Most of the others on the list are completely inconsequential—tiny uninhabited bits of land. A few acres.

    India is the only semi-important dispute.

  23. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    21. May 2021 at 05:31

    @Scott Sumner: “Most of the others on the list are completely inconsequential—tiny uninhabited bits of land. A few acres.”

    I just have to not how you passed over India, which for my money is probably worth multiple states there. Additionally, it is nice to see that you consider Tibet as part of China because Dali Llama said so. Maybe somebody with democratic inclinations could have some other arguments – like free referendum of the population of what they think about that sort of stuff?

    Nevertheless this is not some gotcha thread. The main point is that China is increasingly aggressive and threatening toward neighbors. So the main question is – what should US do about it? Just withdraw from Pacific and turtle in Pearl Harbor leaving all those countries to deal witch China alone? I mean what really is your proposition here.

    Also BTW the Mongolian issue may flare up especially if China is given concessions. There was a flare up as recently as in 2015 that had nothing to do with Taiwan: Yeah, this is a normal thing to do between countries. Given the population of Mongols in Inner Mongolia I do not think that this one can be just thrown to the sideways.

  24. Gravatar of rinat rinat
    22. May 2021 at 19:06

    1. Russia did not annex Crimea. Crimea voted to be a part of Russia.
    I was in Crimea last summer, and 9 out of 10 were pro Russian.

    2. I noticed you refuse to mention Chinese interference in Hong Kong,
    or their threats to India, China, Canada, Japan, Vietnam,
    Australia and the Philippines, nor did you mention their hacking
    attacks upon Australian, Japanese and U.S. infrastructure,
    theft of intellectual property, banning of books, implementation
    of social credit scores, or the extermination of Uyghurs.

    Yet, you think Russia is the bigger threat because they have 6000 nukes? As if 1000 nukes isn’t enough?

    It’s time to leave the 70’s Scott; welcome to the 21st century!

    Come join the rest of us!

  25. Gravatar of Lizard Man Lizard Man
    22. May 2021 at 19:27


    Russia has a lot less to lose, and its relative power is declining. China’s leaders have a lot to lose, and their relative power is increasing as their military power and economy grow. China’s elites can reward or punish other nations without the use of military force, and can also grow their influence without the use of military force. For many of their geopolitical goals, time is on their side. The notable exception might be Taiwan, where military drones and robots may make an invasion almost impossible.

    Now, if you are talking about competing for international influence, of course China is more of a “threat”. But that is one that is best addressed by a long term plan diligently executed, with consideration as to the costs and benefits to the American people (Australian, Indian, Japanese, etc.) taken into account.

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. May 2021 at 16:08

    JV, You said:

    “Maybe somebody with democratic inclinations could have some other arguments – like free referendum of the population of what they think about that sort of stuff?”

    LOL. You think America would allow a region to secede if the voters demanded it? How about Spain? So you have higher standards for totalitarian China than the US or Spain?

    As for India, they fought over a tiny, remote, uninhabited mountain region. As far as I’m concerned, neither country owns that land. It should be like Antarctica–no country at all.

    And don’t expect me to treat you with respect if you come here with some garbage from a ridiculous article claiming that China has border disputes with 17 countries. I expect my readers to know propaganda when they see it. Be a more discerning reader, please.

    Rinat. Learn something about international law before commenting. You would have supported Hitler seizing the Sudetenland–after all, it was mostly Germans living there.

  27. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    29. May 2021 at 10:31

    @Scott Sumner: Look. I do not care a?bout these internet posts. The only thing I want to not is that probably in the name of fighting internet trolls you are now defending that Dali Lama declared Tibet for China. Just imagine yourself two decades ago. Would that be something you endorse? Why is it so easy to do now

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. May 2021 at 09:25

    JV, I’m not saying that Tibet should be a part of China, I’m saying that it is. Even the Dali Lama merely wants local autonomy, not independence. (And I’m certainly not defending Chinese policy in Tibet, which is awful.)

    Ditto for Taiwan. I’m not saying it should be a part of China, I’m saying that the official policy of Beijing, Taipei and Washington DC is that it is a part of China. But I would strongly oppose a Chinese invasion.

    And I’m not saying Crimea should be a part of Ukraine, I’m saying it was legally a part of Ukraine until Russia took it by force. There is such a thing as international law.

    I’m not saying that Catalonia should be a part of Spain, I’m saying it is, and the Spanish government is quite willing to use force to prevent independence.

  29. Gravatar of The original Gordon The original Gordon
    30. May 2021 at 13:56

    Been years since I’ve commented, and I usually side with you, Scott, but to answer your rhetorical question, yes, the Russians would have voiced a complaint, if there was a propaganda advantage in doing so.

Leave a Reply