Chinese Journal Review: A New Cold War in US-China Relations or Something Else?

Today much of the China watching world is looking at the impact of Beijing’s new national security law on Hong Kong’s autonomous status and its democracy movement. Top Chinese academic journals have not published on this development yet (to my knowledge), so I do not have any relevant literature to summarize, but will keep my eyes open.

In the meantime, this week I highlight some of the key takeaways from an essay published by scholar Zhao Kejin in this month’s edition of the Chinese Journal of American Studies, who says that US-China relations are deteriorating, but disputes that the two countries are entering a new Cold War. Scroll below the jump for more.

Other essays of interest from the Chinese Journal of American Studies include:

  • An analysis of the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea. Scholars Lin Limin and Peng Li write that Trump’s policy appears to have changed from “maximum pressure” during his first year in office to “summit diplomacy” in his second. It is now in a period of “strategic patience” reminiscent of Obama Administration-era policies, they write; and

  • A study of 596 Taiwan-related bills and resolutions introduced in Congress between 1973-2020. Authors Lin Gang and Zhou Wenxing argue that as the U.S.-China bilateral relationship has deteriorated since 2016, the U.S. Congress has wanted to expand protections for Taiwan.

Readers may be interested to know that the Journal of International Security Studies also published a new edition this month, with essays about biotechnology, national security policy development, and international security in the context of foreign aid.

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Title: “Soft War” and Its Roots: China-U.S. Interactions during the Covid-19 Pandemic (“软战”及其根源——全球新冠肺炎疫情危机下中美关系相处之道)
Author: Zhao Kejin
Journal: Chinese Journal of American Studies
Link: https://bit.ly/2YDRxbq
Date: June 2020

In this essay, Zhao Kejin, the deputy director for the Center for Sino-US Relations at Tsinghua University, writes that the United States and China are not headed for a new Cold War, but a “soft war.”

Some key takeaways:

  • Unlike the Cold War, the two countries are not competing for world hegemony, Zhao writes, and other countries are not forced to choose between two sides. The United States and China are still very interlinked economically, so it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to decouple global supply chains, which was not the case during the Cold War.

  • Instead, relations between the two countries are presently deteriorating because both countries’ leaders want to shore up legitimacy with their own domestic audiences. Trump is concerned about looking tough on China to appeal to voters in the Rust Belt, he writes; Xi wants to project party unity. 

  • US-China relations have been on the decline for some time, but many analysts thought things could change for the better in early 2020 as a result of the signing of a phase one trade deal and what appeared to be early US solidarity with China regarding the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. In the earliest days of the outbreak, Trump and Pence spoke approvingly of the Chinese response, Zhao notes.

  • However, once the coronavirus pandemic accelerated in the United States, Trump’s tone changed. He blamed China, began calling it the “China virus,” and said he would hold China accountable for letting the virus spread. China’s Foreign Ministry also began to antagonize the U.S. government via Twitter (Commentary: This is undoubtedly a reference to Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian and others’ provocations, but Zhao Kejin does not explicitly use Zhao Lijian’s name). Public opinion in the United States regarding China has soured in recent months as compared to prior years, he notes. Both the Chinese and US sides have expelled media (he does not distinguish between Chinese state-run media versus other independent media outlets).

  • China and the United States have fundamental disagreements regarding who is “right and wrong” on issues related to trade, social issues, and security (Commentary: Zhao goes on at length to argue why he thinks the U.S. is more in the wrong on these issues without giving similar discussion to China’s failings, though this may not be surprising given that Zhao is writing for a Chinese audience.) These issues pre-date the coronavirus pandemic, and have historically manifested themselves in the form of “trade wars, financial wars, and high-tech wars.” But in most cases, other countries have hedged their bets, choosing not to align themselves completely with China or the United States, which Zhao writes is a key difference from Cold War dynamics. Nonetheless, the global coronavirus pandemic has enhanced strategic competition between the United States and China. Zhao is pessimistic that the bilateral relationship will soon improve.  

  • Zhao argues that the way towards a warming US-China relationship will be through joint participation in global-governance mechanisms, including via the United Nations and other international organizations. Given the challenging domestic circumstances in both countries, he questions whether a US-China relationship can improve through normal bilateral relations or even through the mediation of a third country.

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Note: The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences publishes the Chinese Journal of American Studies.