June 10, 2019 9:49AM

Is the Trump Administration Pushing for a Cold War with China?

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Josh Rogin argued this:

Despite what you may have read, the United States’ strategy toward China does not entail launching another Cold War, imposing a zero-sum game or even winning a “clash of civilizations.” In fact, the entire objective of the Trump administration’s Asia approach is to avoid outright conflict with China. But to do that, Beijing must be deterred from continuing on its aggressive path.

The idea that the White House’s new approach to confront China’s economic aggression and military expansion represents a “Cold War mentality” is popular with pundits both in Washington and in Beijing. But that accusation misunderstands what the United States is trying to do with China. ...

Perhaps I am one of the pundits he had in mind, given that I wrote the following earlier this year:

Talking Ourselves into a Cold War with China

Sometimes the latest turns of phrase in policy circles are just fleeting headlines, soon to be forgotten. As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton called for “smart and fair trade.” But she disappeared from the political scene before we figured out what that meant.

However, other times they lead us down the road towards real changes in policy. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Bush administration officials were accusing Saddam Hussein of being involved. At the time, the invasion of Iraq was hardly inevitable, and may not have seemed likely, but armed with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” the administration got the war momentum going, and that is the direction in which the country went.

The U.S.-China relationship is facing similar attempts to define it with very serious sounding terminology, as U.S. policymakers are in the grips of the latest bout of buzzwords and groupthink. The U.S.-China relationship, we are told, may undergo a “conscious uncoupling.” The two countries could be moving towards an “economic cold war.” Actual war is unlikely (although you never know), but nevertheless a seismic geopolitical shift is supposedly upon us.

There is certainly plenty of talk in Washington about a Cold War and a "clash of civilizations." But is any of it coming from the Trump administration, rather than from pundits? Rogin points to one piece of recent evidence and quickly dismisses it:

Those who criticize U.S. policy on China argue that the United States went looking for another enemy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some point to the unfortunate remarks by Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s policy planning director, who clumsily called the U.S.-China competition “a fight with a really different civilization and ideology.” That was an error, not a defining statement on U.S. policy.

To me, though, the full quote from Skinner, as part of a conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, indicates that there is a lot more to this than Rogin suggests:

Skinner: ... not to make light of the Cold War, and the reality of nuclear war that could have happened — and the fact that we came close in some instances — but when we think about the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family. Karl Marx was a German Jew who developed a philosophy that was really within the larger body of political thought … that has some tenets even within classical liberalism. And so, in that way, I think it was a huge fight within the Western family.

You can look at the Soviet Union – part West, part East – but it had some openings there that got us the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. It was a really important Western concept that opened the door really to undermine the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, on human rights principles.

That’s not really possible with China. This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before, nor has it had an economic competitor the way that we have. The Soviet Union was a country with nuclear weapons, a huge Red Army, but a backwards economy. That was the insight of Reagan when the intel community told him differently. He said I just don’t see the signs that it can survive a technology race with the West. So in China we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a kind of global reach that many of us didn’t expect a couple of decades ago, and I think it’s also striking that it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.

Slaughter: You sound like Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations

Skinner: Some of those tenets but a little bit different, and all of those things together are a bit perplexing for the American foreign policy establishment, and I think we have to take the rose colored glasses and get real about the nature of the threat and I think we also have to give a kind of respect for I think what the Chinese seek to accomplish.

Clumsy or not, this wasn't just a slip of the tongue. It seems like a fairly well-developed worldview, one that perhaps has been discussed around the State Department and that she articulated pretty clearly in a very public forum.

Along the same lines as a Cold War, although more restrained, is all the talk of Great Power competition. In this regard, there was this speech from Christopher Ford of the State Department, in which he says the following:

Re-learning a Competitive Mindset in Great-Power Competition


Hence, of course, our need for competitive strategy. Indeed, the challenge from China may be even deeper than that, for in some sense it is developing not only at the somewhat prosaic, realpolitik level of power and influence, but also at the more profound level of what one might call socio-political “operating systems.” As observed in the National Defense Strategy, “[i]t is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” China, in particular, has become notably interested in exporting its state-capitalist, high-technology police state model of government to other countries – what I believe the journalist Nicolas Kristof once called “Market Leninism” – even while ensnaring ever-greater portions of the developing world in manipulated debt dependencies and “neo-neocolonial” economic relationships. The global competition, in other words, is becoming ideological. Increasingly, it seems to be not just about who will dominate the 21st century world, but also about what the operating system of that world will be, and the predominant mode of governance within it. Clearly, this is serious stuff.

But this is where competitive mindset comes in. For a long time, our mindset was part of the problem. As I have noted elsewhere, after the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, our country and its democratic and capitalist “operating system” stood seemingly unchallenged, feeling happily vindicated after decades of struggle against ideologized tyrannies of both the Right and the Left. Concluding that the world’s most important ideological and Great Power conflicts had all just resolved themselves conclusively in our favor, our policy community basically went on a complacent vacation from Great Power competitive strategy – even while China took our post-Cold War ascendancy as a compelling reason to improve its competitive game, and Beijing has spent the last quarter-century implementing a strategy dedicated to challenging and undermining our power and influence in the world.

Is this kind of Great Power competition similar to a Cold War or a "clash of civilizations"? It is all probably a matter of degree. Rogin is arguing that the Trump administration is simply "deterring" China, rather than "clashing" with China. It's kind of a fine line, though.

I haven't collected the full range of quotes from Trump administration officials, to see what each person thinks. But it seems to me there is some good evidence that at least a few high-ranking Trump administration officials are pretty enthusiastic about something Cold War-ish with China.