The Real Origins of the U.S.- China Cold War | Daily News

The Real Origins of the U.S.- China Cold War

The only way to win the next superpower showdown is to understand what exactly caused it.

How should Washington deal with an authoritarian regime that is expanding its influence abroad and repressing its citizens at home? That is the question the United States faces today in dealing with Xi Jinping’s China. But it is not a new challenge. After World War II, the United States faced another authoritarian state intent on expanding its borders, intimidating its neighbours, undermining democratic institutions, exporting its authoritarian model, and stealing U.S. technology and know-how. The result, after a period of initial debate and uncertainty in U.S. policy, was the Cold War: a 40-year competition over power, influence, and the contours of global order.

As tensions between Beijing and Washington harden, there is a growing fear that China and the United States are entering a new cold war -another multi-decade struggle to shape the international system. There is also a growing debate about who or what is responsible for the deterioration in the relationship. Is it the vaulting ambition and personalistic rule of Xi Jinping? The nature of Communist rule in China? The tragic qualities of international relations? America’s own behaviour and global ambitions?

U.S.-Soviet relations

Differing diagnoses lead to different prescriptions. If U.S. actions have caused the downturn, Washington should henceforth avoid actions likely to antagonize Beijing. If Xi is to blame for putting the United States and China on a collision course, perhaps America should focus on either waiting him out or enabling those around him. Alternatively, if confrontation is an inescapable byproduct of the authoritarian rule of China’s Communist Party or of the tensions that inevitably emerge between great powers in a competitive international system, then the United States should accept that rivalry is unavoidable and adopt a more concentrated and coordinated strategy of counter-pressure.

In parsing these different possibilities, it can be helpful to go back to debates about the origins of the first Cold War. Historical scholarship on the breakdown of U.S.-Soviet relations after World War II addresses such questions as which side was most responsible, whether confrontation between Moscow and Washington was inevitable, the role of ideology and perception, and the significance of individual leaders in bringing on what U.S. President John F. Kennedy would call the “long twilight struggle.” These debates also provide a useful framework for thinking about how the United States and China got to the present impasse, and where Washington should go from here.

Between 1945 and 1947, the U.S.-Soviet relationship went from a tense but productive wartime partnership to a deep geopolitical and ideological confrontation that would persist for decades. Subsequent historical interpretations of the Cold War’s origins fall into four distinct schools of thought.

The first interpretation, which emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s, placed responsibility for the Cold War on the Soviet Union. According to this view, Moscow’s attempt to dominate large swaths of Europe and Asia after World War II were driven by traditional Russian expansionism, Marxist-Leninist ideology, and Joseph Stalin’s extraordinary paranoia. U.S. policymakers were primarily interested in continuing wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union and had trouble comprehending Moscow’s truculence. The turn toward a more confrontational U.S. policy in 1946 to 1947, then, was simply a reaction to a series of increasingly aggressive Soviet actions. There was little that Washington could have done to appease Stalin’s concerns; if anything, U.S. policymakers should have responded sooner and more sharply to the Soviet challenge.

Beginning in the late 1950s, and with increasing influence after the national disillusion caused by the Vietnam War, so-called revisionist scholars challenged this interpretation. They insisted that Washington, not Moscow, was the guilty party. The United States, the revisionists believed, had long been an inherently expansionist power, bent on extending its economic reach, promoting its system of market capitalism, and spreading its values throughout the world. This ethos jeopardized Stalin’s reasonable desire for a zone of privileged interest in Eastern Europe; it forced Moscow to choose between insecurity and confrontation. As William Appleman Williams, the dean of the revisionists, wrote, “It was the decision of the United States to employ its new and awesome power in keeping with the traditional Open Door Policy which crystallized the Cold War.” According to this reading of events, U.S. policy made no allowances for Soviet concerns or Moscow’s interests, and it was hardly surprising that the Kremlin chose confrontation.

A third explanation combined elements of the first two interpretations. Writing after the passions stirred by Vietnam had faded, post-revisionist historians acknowledged that the United States had made errors. But they saw the Cold War mostly as a tragic inevitability. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves the two mightiest countries in the world, with vast power vacuums between them. This situation alone would have produced competition; divergent political systems, historical experiences, and concepts of how best to produce security brought on the Cold War.

Wartime alliance

With the brief opening of the Soviet archives after the Cold War, a fourth interpretation emerged. Eminent historians such as John Lewis Gaddis revised their earlier interpretations, placing greater culpability on the Soviets in general and Stalin in particular. Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Gaddis wrote that “Stalin’s post-war goals were security for himself, his regime, his country and his ideology, in precisely that order.” There was no possibility of lasting cooperation with a leader so ruthless, aggressive, and distrustful. Stalin’s unappeasable suspicions, his belief in Western weakness, and his willingness to probe the outer boundaries of U.S. influence caused the wartime alliance to crumble. This interpretation has been called “neo-orthodoxy” because new sources led to an old conclusion: that the West was right, both morally and prudentially, to resist.

These differing interpretations of the Cold War’s origins mirror key questions and controversies in contemporary U.S.-China relations. Is the downturn in relations the fault of Washington or Beijing? Is there something in the nature of the Chinese Communist Party or Xi Jinping that drives it toward confrontation? Or is the anarchic and competitive nature of the international system to blame?

Despite these advances, both China and Russia still know that, for now, they would be defeated if their attacks triggered a full response by the United States. The key for them is to attack and fight in a way that Washington restrains itself enough for them to secure their gains. This means ensuring that the war is fought on limited terms such that the United States will not see fit to bring to bear its full weight. Focused attacks designed to pick off vulnerable members of Washington’s alliance network are the ideal offensive strategy in the nuclear age, in which no one can countenance the consequences of total war.

One school of thought, the contemporary parallel of Cold War revisionism, seems particularly lacking. Yes, the United States has long maintained a significant military presence in the Asia-Pacific and taken other actions - support for human rights within China, for instance - that have surely antagonized an insecure and ambitious Chinese regime. But the United States has simultaneously done more than any other country to enable China’s remarkable rise, by paving Beijing’s way into the World Trade Organization, opening its markets to Chinese goods, allowing the transfer of advanced civilian technologies, and encouraging Beijing to become more engaged and influential in both regional and global diplomacy. It is difficult to claim that the United States “is bent on containing China,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010, given that “China has experienced breathtaking growth and development” since re-establishing relations with the United States. - Foreign Policy 


Add new comment