China, the New Cold War Threat That Wasn’t

Tensions between the United States and China are rising, with tit-for-tat consulate closures, new U.S. sanctions, and no less than three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups prowling around the South China Sea. 

It is the United States that has initiated each new escalation in U.S.-China tensions. China’s responses have been careful and proportionate, with Chinese officials such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly asking the United States to step back from its brinkmanship to find common ground for diplomacy.

With a war-weary public demanding an end to the endless conflicts that have served to justify record military spending for nearly twenty years, the U.S. military-industrial complex has to find more substantial enemies to justify its continued existence and budget-busting costs. 

Most of the U.S. complaints about China are longstanding, from its treatment of the Uighur minority and disputes over islands and maritime borders in the South China Sea, to accusations of unfair trade practices and criminalizing protesters in Hong Kong. But the answer to the question “Why now?” seems obvious: the approaching U.S. election.

Danny Russel, who was Obama’s top East Asia expert in the National Security Council and then at the State Department, told the BBC that the new tensions with China are partly an effort to divert attention from Trump’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his tanking poll numbers, saying this “has a wag-the-dog feel to it.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has been going toe-to-toe with Trump and Secretary Mike Pompeo in a potentially dangerous “tough on China” contest, which could prove difficult for the winner to walk back after the election.

China’s economic miracle has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, and, until recently, Western corporations were glad to make the most of its huge pool of cheap labor, weak workplace and environmental protections, and growing consumer market. Western leaders welcomed China into their club of wealthy, powerful countries with little fuss about human and civil rights. 

So what changed? 


U.S.-based high-tech companies like Apple, which were once only too glad to outsource American jobs and train Chinese contractors and engineers to manufacture their products, are finally confronting the reality that they have not just outsourced jobs, but also skills and technology. Chinese companies and highly skilled workers are now leading some of the world’s latest technological advances. 

The global rollout of 5G cellular technology has become a flashpoint because Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE have developed and patented much of the critical infrastructure involved, leaving Silicon Valley in the unfamiliar position of having to play catchup. 

Also, if the 5G infrastructure in the United States is built by Huawei and ZTE (rather than AT&T and Verizon), the U.S. government will no longer be able to require the “back doors” that the NSA uses to spy on us all—so they’re creating a scapegoat, stoking fears that China could insert its own back doors in Chinese equipment to spy on us instead. 

Left out of the discussion is the real solution: Repeal the Patriot Act and make sure that all the technology we use in our daily lives is secure from the prying eyes of both the U.S. and foreign governments.     

China is investing in infrastructure all over the world. As of March 2020, a staggering 138 countries had joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive plan to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks. China’s international influence will only be enhanced by its success, and the U.S.’s failure, in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, with a war-weary public demanding an end to the endless conflicts that have served to justify record military spending for nearly twenty years, the U.S. military-industrial complex has to find more substantial enemies to justify its continued existence and budget-busting costs. 

Lockheed Martin is not ready to switch from building billion-dollar warplanes on cost-plus contracts to making wind turbines and solar panels. 


The only targets the United States can find to justify a $740 billion military budget and 800 overseas military bases are its familiar old Cold War enemies: Russia and China. Both countries expanded their modest military budgets after 2011, when the U.S. and its allies hijacked the Arab Spring to launch covert and proxy wars in Libya, where China had substantial oil interests, and Syria, a long-term Russian ally. 

But these increases in military spending were only relative. In 2019, China’s military budget was $261 billion, compared to the United States’ $732 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The United States still spends more on its military than the ten next largest military powers combined, including Russia and China.  

Russian and Chinese military forces are almost entirely defensive, with an emphasis on advanced and effective anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. Neither Russia nor China has invested in carrier strike groups to sail the seven seas or U.S.-style expeditionary forces to attack or invade countries on the other side of the planet. 

But for lack of a more serious military threat to the United States, U.S. military doctrine is once again treating Russia and China as existential threats. The sad truth is that thirty years after the supposed end of the Cold War, the U.S. military-industrial complex has failed to reimagine itself in anything but Cold War terms, and its “New” Cold War is just a revival of the old one.

The United States and China do not have to be enemies. Just a year ago, a hundred U.S. business, political and military leaders signed a public letter to President Donald Trump in The Washington Post entitled “China Is Not an Enemy.” 

They wrote that China is not “an economic enemy or an existential national security threat,” and that U.S opposition “will not prevent the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, a greater global market share for Chinese companies, and an increase in China’s role in world affairs.” 

The letter concluded that “U.S. efforts to treat China as an enemy and decouple it from the global economy will damage the United States’ international role and reputation and undermine the economic interests of all nations,” and that the United States “could end up isolating itself rather than Beijing.” 

That is precisely what is happening. Governments all over the world are collaborating with China to stop the spread of coronavirus and share the solutions with all who need them, making the timing of the United States’ current effort to undermine China exceptionally counterproductive. 

Only by cooperating with other nations and international organizations can we stop the pandemic—and address the coronavirus-sparked economic meltdown gripping the world economy and the many other challenges we must all face together if we are to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.

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