The chances of a Sino-American cold war are far higher today than they were just months ago. Even worse, the chances of an actual war, resulting from an incident involving the countries’ militaries, are also greater.
NEW YORK – Observers of US-China relations increasingly talk of a new cold war. On top of a long-running trade war, the two countries now find themselves in a destructive cycle of mutual sanctions, consulate closings, and increasingly bellicose official speeches. Efforts to decouple the US economy from China’s are underway as tensions mount in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
A cold war between the United States and China would leave both countries and the world worse off. It would be dangerous and costly – not least because it would preclude needed cooperation on a host of regional and global issues.
The good news is that such an outcome is not inevitable. The bad news is the chances of a second cold war are far higher today than they were just months ago. Even worse, the chances of an actual war, resulting from an incident involving the countries’ militaries, are also greater.
Why is this happening? Some say Sino-American confrontation is inevitable, the result of friction between the established and rising powers of the day. But this overlooks the various episodes in history when such power shifts did not result in war. Even more, it underestimates the importance of decisions already made and yet to be made. For better and for worse, little in history is inevitable.
A more serious assessment of how we got here begins with China. In recent years, and increasingly in recent months, the Chinese government has embraced a more assertive path at home and abroad. This is reflected in China’s crackdown in Hong Kong in the wake of its enactment of a harsh new national security law; the inhumane treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority; the clashes along its unsettled border with India; the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in the disputed South China Sea; and regular displays of military strength near both Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, which both China and Japan claim as their own.
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