As the United States and China get ready for another round of trade talks, a group of US foreign policy experts gave a reminder that the two countries’ differences are not limited to trade.
Earlier this week, a cadre led by Trump administration allies and advisors launched the Committee on the Present Danger: China, calling for a hardline foreign policy to challenge the “existential threat” posed by China under the “misrule” of its current government.
Borrowing the name of a Cold War-era institution, which was established and disbanded twice before the fall of the Soviet Union, speakers during the launch ceremony warned that – even if a trade deal is reached with China – the US is “still facing a world of hurt at their hands.”
The less-than-subtle allusion to the competition between the post-World War II spheres of influence reflects an emerging consensus in Washington that China’s rapidly growing economic clout, and comparatively less significant military expansion, somehow resembles the path of the Soviet Union.
“Four decades ago, another such committee helped Ronald Reagan defeat the previous totalitarian Communist government that sought our destruction: the Soviet Union. Ours launches today [one that is] determined to help President Trump do the same with respect to the present, Chinese danger of our time,” a statement released on the committee’s website read.
The tone of the speakers at the event on Monday reinforced a narrative coming from Beijing that Washington is being overrun by a “Cold War mentality.”
Frank Gaffney, vice-chairman of the new committee and head of the Center for Security Policy, suggested that US disagreements with China “ultimately emanate from the character of the communist regime, mainly that it is ruled, brutally, in a totalitarian fashion, by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Some say this type of rhetoric plays into the hands of the Chinese government, which has made efforts to paint US policy as stuck in the past. China’s Defense Ministry decried the Pentagon’s “Cold War mentality” as recently as last week, responding to testimony during a Senate hearing.
“We demand that the US side abandon the Cold War mentality, objectively and rationally view China’s national defense and military building, stop making false remarks, and take concrete actions to promote the healthy and stable development of relations between the two countries and the two militaries,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said, as reported by Xinhua News Agency.
But despite signals from the Washington establishment, including as found in a new National Defense Strategy unveiled last year, which for the first time identified China as a “strategic competitor,” many are wary of comparing the current great power dynamics with those of the last century.
Elsa Kania, a specialist in China’s military modernization and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, argued in a paper last year that Washington should “abandon Cold War prescriptions for containing China.”
“At best, such an approach would play directly into the hands of China’s propaganda machine. Instead, the United States must recognize that China’s ambition for what it describes as ‘national rejuvenation’ constitutes a challenge that eclipses the Cold War in both complexity and consequence,” Kania wrote.
“Were the United States to revert to a ‘Cold War mentality,’ concentrating primarily on countering and containing China’s economic resurgence and expanding influence, it might only accelerate the emergence of a more Sino-centric world order.”
To the extent that voices such as those heard from the new committee launched this week already predominate in Washington, it appears too late to avoid such an outcome.