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  • China Leadership Monitor

CLM Insights Interview with Evan Medeiros

Evan Medeiros, ed. Cold Rivals: The New Era of Strategic Competition. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, August 2023. 320 pp. ISBN-10: ‎1647123593; ISBN-13: ‎978-1647123598.

Medeiros CLM Issue 79 March 2024
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Cold Rivals: The News Era of Strategic Competition

Insights Interview

Your analysis of the ongoing U.S.-China rivalry identifies both structural factors and precipitating events or actions. Can you briefly explain what they are? Was there indeed a “Thucydides trap”?

This volume is designed to open the aperture on this new era of strategic competition in U.S.-China relations by examining its origins, manifestations, and implications. It seeks to answer three basic questions. First, how, and why did this era emerge? How deep are its roots and was it inevitable? Second, what kinds of behaviors and interactive dynamics will this competition produce? Third, what are the implications for the future of U.S.-China relations? As competition evolves, is confrontation inevitable, and, if so, what issue or set of issues will drive it?

To generalize, the chapters identify several structural forces that have fostered this era of strategic competition. The first is the expansion, diversification, and intensification of the sources of competition. The volume identifies four main arenas of diverging interests: security, economics, technology, and ideology. The first two are not new for U.S.-China ties, but the nature of the competition has expanded and intensified in recent years as China’s ambitions and capabilities have grown. In these two areas in particular, the stakes for both countries have grown. The newer arenas of competition are technology and ideas or ideology. With China emerging as a technology power, Washington and Beijing are competing to control the technologies - like semiconductors and AI - central to prosperity in the 21st century, as revealed in the chapters by Paul Triolo and Helen Toner. Under Xi Jinping, competition of ideas about both domestic and global governance has become a major feature of the relationship.

A second major structural force is the decline in the role of buffers and stabilizers in the relationship. These are forces that historically served as sources of ballast, but that have faded in salience in recent years. Prominent examples include: interventions by top leaders at crisis points; shared economic interests; advocacy of key interest groups; and the roles of allies and partners who caution restraint to both Beijing and Washington. Many of these past stabilizing forces are now inoperative, having declined in importance or – in the case of interest groups – having transitioned to become drivers of divergence.

A third structural force is the changing nature of domestic politics. Diverse forces within both governments and between state and society are profoundly changing how each country sees the other and the policies and actions adopted in response. Domestic politics in both countries are rapidly becoming an important, and in some cases an autonomous, driver of their interactions. In the United States, this has involved changes in Congressional politics and its new level of activism, electoral politics, interest group politics, bureaucratic politics, and public opinion. In China, the prominence of Marxist-Leninist thinking under Xi, Xi’s centralization and politicization of decision-making, and Xi’s new domestic priorities, such as national security and self-reliance, are all shaping China’s policymaking toward the United States.


The contributions to the volume also stress the role of contingency and the importance of key events in shaping the trajectory of the relationship. There was little consensus that the era of strategic competition was inevitable but rather a sequence of unanticipated events contributed to this outcome. Some of the seminal events the authors’ highlight include: WTO accession (and China’s massive economic successes), the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the global financial crisis, the rise of Xi, the election of Donald Trump, COVID, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. None of these were predicted in advance and each, in their own way, shaped U.S. and Chinese perceptions and policies toward the other. The American and the Chinese authors both agree that these events influenced Chinese ambitions and how Beijing used its expanding capabilities.


Your book includes contributions from several leading Chinese foreign policy scholars. What is the most striking difference between their analyses and those of their American colleagues? Do you detect a sense of fatalism on their part whereby this “cold rivalry” will not only continue for decades but could become very ugly and dangerous?

The most prominent difference between the U.S. and Chinese contributors has to do with their assessments of Chinese perceptions and policies. Most Chinese, implicitly and explicitly, frame China as a recipient of U.S. competitive policies and merely trying to defend Chinese interests in the face of U.S. polices to shape, constrain, and contain China. For them, the Chinese focus on domestic economic development and managing U.S.-China ties was all about contributing to that goal – not to competing with the United States in Asia or globally for either power or influence. In other words, it was U.S. perceptions and actions that brought competition into the relationship. Many U.S. authors see competition as a common condition in the relationship from the early 1990s onward, mainly after the Tiananmen events of 1989 and the Taiwan straits crisis of 1995–96. This aspect of the relationship intensified as Chinese ambitions evolved and its capabilities expanded. In particular, some U.S. authors view the arrival as Xi as a major turning point given the depth of his suspicions of U.S. motives and his ambitions for global leadership.

Thus, there is a notable divide between U.S. and Chinese authors about Chinese perceptions and contributions to this era of competition, with Chinese specialists placing less emphasis on the competitive dynamics in the evolution of China’s policymaking and more emphasis on China’s defensive motives in the face of increasing U.S. pressure over the course of many decades.

There is no sense of fatalism among the U.S. and Chinese authors’ and none treat armed conflict as inevitable in the coming years. The Chinese authors, especially Wu Xinbo, believe that U.S. perceptions have fundamentally changed in terms of seeing China as a strategic rival. Most U.S. authors would agree with this, but they believe a similar consensus has not only been consolidated in China but has become prevalent under Xi Jinping. The Chinese contributors are reluctant to call this a “Cold War,” rejecting the comparison to the U.S.-Soviet era. But they also acknowledge that the relationship will now be defined largely by competition and especially by security competition. Both the U.S. and Chinese contributors express concerns about an accident or a miscalculation as geopolitical competition expands and diversifies.


We are now six years into the rupture of U.S.-China relations if we treat the trade war in 2018 as the beginning of this process. What are the emerging contours of their respective grand strategies to sustain themselves in an open-ended rivalry?

Now that U.S.-China relations are effectively accepted by both sides as a strategic competition, U.S. and Chinese strategies have evolved. The Biden administration initiated one of the greatest changes in China strategy since the end of the Cold War. Its strategy possesses the following elements: investing in U.S. domestic industrial and technologies capabilities to better compete with China; expanding ties with allies and partners in Asia and - importantly - in Europe to shape and constrain Chinese behaviors; investing in U.S. defense capabilities to prepare for a high-intensity conflict in Asia; and, more recently, opening up channels of dialogue to manage the competition and to prevent it from spiraling into an uncontrolled rivalry.

China’s policymaking has also evolved but less substantially. Wu Xinbo argues it was the comprehensive nature of Trump’s actions against China, including the trade war and the numerous speeches drawing stark ideological differences, which produced a new level of distrust and acrimony on the Chinese side toward the United States. Wu argues that beginning with the Trump administration, Chinese strategy has possessed the following attributes: seeking discursive power; counterattack; deterrence; bargaining, negotiation and compromise; reducing vulnerability; divide and rule; and winning over third parties (in the United States and internationally). In assessing China’s pursuit of these strategies, Wu maintains that China sought to execute a careful balancing act: fighting back without jeopardizing the entire relationship and precipitating a new “Cold War.”  I think that if we were to ask Wu Xinbo today about this strategy, he would say that it is still accurate, but it is becoming increasingly difficult due to today’s numerous global conflicts and the changes in domestic politics in both countries.   


What in your view are the top three greatest obstacles to managing the rivalry responsibly?

The first major obstacle is the lack of well-developed channels for dialogue and communication, especially on security and military issues. These come and go depending on the state of bilateral ties. This is compounded by a lack of political support in both Washington and Beijing to commit to such mechanisms. Many in Washington see dialogue as a waste of time because they allow Beijing to play for time and advantage. Many in Beijing see dialogue as a concession to extend and withdraw depending on the state of the relationship. Beijing is especially reluctant to commit to developing confidence-building measures or even to crisis management mechanisms, leaving the relationship highly vulnerable to a dangerous downward spiral during a crisis.

The second biggest obstacle is the lack of acceptance by either country, but especially by China, of the importance of strategic restraint in certain areas as a means for managing the strategic competition. Right now, neither side really understands the boundaries of the competition and they both are exploring them through their actions in all of the arenas of competition. That is a very dangerous place for the relationship to be, as we saw with U.S.-Soviet interactions in the 1950s. U.S.-China interactions in the South China Sea or on the Korean peninsula could inadvertently produce a crisis or a confrontation, especially beyond the well-known issues such as Taiwan.

The third is the influence of domestic politics on policymaking in both countries, as discussed above. Domestic political forces in both countries are contracting the space for dialogue and negotiation, fostering negative perceptions and even misperceptions, increasing incentives for more types of competition, raising barriers to meaningful cooperation, and increasing the risk of inadvertent actions - like Nancy Pelosi’s summer 2022 visit to Taiwan - that may precipitate a crisis.


How can the U.S. and China learn from the Cold War and avoid repeating similar mistakes?

Most fundamentally, there are two conditions necessary to foster stable coexistence between the United States and China: a strategic modus vivendi and a domestic political consensus. Neither exist today and both seem far off.

The former could be implicit or explicit and involves an understanding, if not an agreement, between the two countries about where they will cooperate and where they will compete; it is also about understanding the boundaries of the competition and perhaps some rules of the road to guide bilateral interactions. The latter involves support among domestic U.S. and Chinese actors for the nature and scope of the terms of coexistence. There needs to be agreement among domestic stakeholders about interests and stakes and then the strategies and policies to be pursued latter.

Absent the formation of a strategic modus vivendi and a domestic political consensus, there are some less hearty and less hefty conditions that might help stabilize the increasingly competitive relationship. These include: a commitment to an open and sustained dialogue, an agreement on the rough boundaries of security competition, initiating a few areas of meaningful cooperation, articulation of shared interests, and leadership on both sides to manage domestic political forces or at least to minimize the risk of inadvertent actions.

Finally, during the phase of the Cold War following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, one of the most important lessons Washington and Moscow learned was the value of strategic restraint. They both came to appreciate that an uncontrolled military expansion could precipitate disaster, as it almost did in 1962. This led both sides to pursue limited arms control agreements in the 1960s, such as the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (which banned all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space, or underwater).  Today, Washington and Beijing appear to be moving in the wrong direction. Of notable concern is the possible quintupling of China’s nuclear arsenal within the next ten years to some 1500 warheads.

In short, a commitment by both sides to sustained dialogue, an agreement on some boundaries to the competition, and an acceptance of the value of strategic restraint would go a long way to avoiding the mistakes of the first Cold War.


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