To some, tensions between the U.S. and China look like a remake of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Yet the West's nemesis this time is more sophisticated and tied to us commercially in ways Moscow never was. There are, however, also new kinds of danger.
PARIS — If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ... And yet. The relationship between China and the United States looks more and more like the Cold War of the past between the United States and the USSR, but it is something wholly different.
That difference of course begins with economic co-dependency. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $690 billion in 2022 — a record — with a deficit that increased by $30 billion, to the detriment of the United States. The world, and even more its Asian neighbors, may be afraid of Chinese ambitions, but it is increasingly dependent on China economically — just as the Middle Kingdom depends, for its growth, on its foreign exchanges.
No, we are far from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The destruction of the Chinese spy balloon may evoke the aerial incidents that preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. And it is legitimate to wonder whether Taiwan will be a new Cuba. But, for the sake of historical rigor and geopolitical understanding – one must point out the significant differences between the “real” Cold War of yesterday and the “strange” Cold War of today.
First, Americans understood the USSR much better than they understand China. George Kennan's 1947 essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published in Foreign Affairs, formulated the basis for the strategy of "containment." Today, in the United States (or elsewhere), there is no comparable analysis of China — no equivalent of this foundational text.
The first of many reasons — the most important — is civilizational. It starts from an observation: China's government knows and understands the Western world infinitely better than the other way around. The passage of many Chinese students in major American and European universities helps to partly explain this phenomenon. These students – some studied in my classes at Harvard or at King's College in London – in fact have a double culture, which is only very rarely the case on "our side."
Message to the world
We have an overall idea of what Chinese authorities want: to catch up with the West and overtake it, to erase the humiliation emanating from the long period of the nation's historical decline between 1815 and 1978. Mixed in with this undeniable desire for revenge are nationalism and ideology.
Do these analogies with the West make sense? Or is it a form of navel-gazing, if not cultural imperialism?
Xi Jinping intends both to demonstrate the superiority of the authoritarian model over the democratic model, and to affirm the return of the centrality, if not the pre-eminence of the Middle Kingdom. In 2005 at the Royal Academy in London, the centerpiece of a major exhibition of 17th and 18th century Chinese art was a large European-style painting, which showed foreign ambassadors rushing to pay homage to the Emperor of China.
China's message to the world could not have been more explicit: "You will honor us tomorrow, as you did yesterday."
We can argue that this objective has not changed since 2005, but its tempo has accelerated. It is as if China — and Germany, once its unity was achieved in 1871 — had gone from the relative caution of Bismarck and Deng Xiaoping, to the impatience of William II and Xi Jinping. But do these analogies with the Western world really make sense? Do they not reflect, on our part, a form of navel-gazing, if not cultural imperialism?
Biden and Xi Jinping shaking hands before a face-to-face bilateral meeting during the G20 Summit on November 14, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia.
Adam Schultz/The White House/ZUMA Press Wire
No "red phone" this time around
When mistrust — legitimate, given the Chinese government's current behavior — is coupled with incomprehension, anything becomes possible, including the worst. That is to say, the temptation to see every Chinese person around the world as a potential spy in the service of Beijing. In the United States in particular, the return of the "Yellow Peril," in the era of the information revolution and social networks, is a very real danger. This explains the relief felt when the perpetrator of a recent shooting targeting the Asian community was himself found to be of Chinese origin.
With each spying on the other permanently, it is difficult to be really surprised.
It is not a question here of showing sympathy towards a Chinese regime which is less and less attractive, but of curiosity and empathy towards a people, a culture and a civilization that we can only continue to ignore at our expense.
And the less understanding there is, the more essential communication becomes. But — and this is another major difference with yesterday's Cold War — there is no “red phone” between Washington and Beijing.
With each spying on the other permanently, it is difficult to be really surprised. But it is one thing to "know" — and therefore to foresee — what will happen; it is quite another to maintain a quasi-institutional, bilateral dialogue. In the “balloon affair,” for example, there is undeniably a symbolic dimension: “Even in matters of espionage, I can do more and better than you,” Chinese authorities seem to say to America.
More sophisticated than the USSR
But beyond that, with regard to the Washington-Beijing dialogue, we should be realistic, and therefore modest. It is not today a “reset” of relations between the two countries. We are very, very far from that. It's more about avoiding the worst.
In fact, China has clearly chosen Russia's side in the war in Ukraine. But that doesn't mean Beijing wants to appear to the world as an XXL version of Moscow.
The heirs of the Middle Kingdom are infinitely more sophisticated than the heirs of the Tsars. It is necessary to deal with them with realism, not naivety or weakness. Kennan's Cold War-era containment formula cannot be duplicated. The differences are too great between the real Cold War of yesterday and the strange Cold War of today.