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A rekindled Cold War? A reality check on the narrative around U.S.-China tensions

President Joe Biden listens as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)
President Joe Biden listens as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

Some American leaders are using sharper, more belligerent language about China.

From Sen. Ted Cruz:

“China is the single greatest geopolitical threat facing the United States over the next century,” the senator tweeted in 2020.

To Mike Pompeo:

“Now, I’ve spoken about this at some length, the People’s Republic of China represent an absolute existential threat to our country,” the former secretary of state said.

We often hear from Washington that the United States is locked in another great powers conflict with China. But is the “great powers” Cold War era analogy the right one for modern China?

Today, On Point: The fear and folly of invoking Cold War rhetoric when grappling with U.S.-China tensions.


Melvyn Leffler, professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia. Author of several books on the Cold War, including “For the Soul of Mankind” and “A Preponderance of Power.” Co-editor of the three volume “Cambridge History of the Cold War.”

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Yangyang Cheng, postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations. (@yangyang_cheng)

Interview Highlights

On echoes between Cold War era language and U.S.-China relations in 2021

Yangyang Cheng: “China is used as a subject. But China is a country. It cannot think and do. So who in China is bent on dominating Asia or other parts of the world? There may be certain people in different levels of Chinese government, or punditry in society, who may have these views. But are these the dominant views? Are these the only views? Can these views be changed? And can power relations be changed? I feel that this kind of rhetoric really reflects a profound lack of intellectual curiosity. As well as a lack of moral imagination. That these fears and insecurities are all projected onto a faceless other. And the world is being collapsed into this kind of false binary. And so oneself can pretend to be both morally superior, as well as innocent.”

But isn’t that one of the hallmarks of how world powers talk about other nations in moments of tension?

Yangyang Cheng: “Absolutely. And I would like to also point out that similar rhetorics are also used by the Chinese government. In terms of talking about U.S. or Western imperialism bent on subverting the Chinese system, bent on keeping China backwards. And these are the language that are directed at a domestic audience in order to legitimize the Chinese government’s way of governing, in order to enhance its own control within China, and potentially also overseas.”

China doesn’t necessarily have to forcibly project its power. The fear is that the biggest difference today is that China actually has its economic tentacles, by our own invitation, in the United States already.

If you look at the economic power of China, the United States can be almost seen as a vassal state to China. And that’s the existential threat that not just Ted Cruz, but occasionally Joe Biden and people on both sides of the aisle, talk about. What do you make of that? 

Yangyang Cheng: “It is interesting, right, because, for example, earlier in the clips, you’ve shown certain senators on the floor saying, ‘commie China’ and this and that. But of course, the Chinese ruling party is nominally communist, China is now an integral part of the global capitalist system. And the Chinese government itself is a major player in the global capitalist system.

“And if we think about this integration, a lot of the overseas influence, and political pressures the Chinese government exerts through its economic leverage really is not so much as China is weakening the democratic system, but behaviors from certain Chinese entities are exposing the pre-existing weaknesses in a lot of societies. Where there are companies that prioritize access to the Chinese market, instead of standing up for principles of freedom and human rights.

“And how these global supply chains, including the forced labor issue among the weaker people in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. And so it’s really systems of oppression, including state oppression, are all connected. And simply projecting them as all in one single country contained by a border, it’s a profound misunderstanding.”

On lessons from the Cold War, and how we might apply those lessons regarding America and China today

Melvyn Leffler: “Even President Reagan came to realize that the Soviet Union and the United States had mutual interests. Mutual interests in curbing the strategic arms race, in negotiating arms limitation agreements. And most of all, in seeking to abolish nuclear weapons. Once again, Republican officials from Ford to Reagan, from Nixon, Ford and Reagan, while waging the Cold War, also understood that they needed to seek out mutual interests. And that’s what we need to do today.”

Yangyang Cheng: “The Cold War really was a hot war in many parts of the world. And it’s like the people who exist on the edges of empires, on the margins of nationhood, who are bearing the … cost of it. And we are seeing these being played out again. And so I think one really important thing is to listen to the voices in the margins who are bearing the brunt of the cost in terms of xenophobic rhetoric, in terms of state oppression, in terms of climate change. And to be able to see the edge not as an end, but as a new beginning. And to imagine a world where humanity as a species can come together and imagine the future where no one is in exile.”

Highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity.

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: “China Isn’t the Soviet Union. Confusing the Two Is Dangerous.” — “Anyone looking for evidence of a growing economic and ideological conflict between China and the United States will have no trouble finding something—the trade war now roiling both countries’ economies, the standoff between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Beijing’s swift retaliation against the NBA over a single Houston Rockets executive’s tweet in support of those same protesters.”

The Guardian: “The west sees China as a ‘threat’, not as a real place, with real people” — “I was at dinner with a friend, and she asked about my work. ‘Name one thing you wish Americans knew about China,’ she said.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.