Why China would lose a cold war with America

Why China would lose a cold war with America
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Since the early 1990s, political scientists and historians the world over have built their careers predicting when and how a “cold war” between the United States and China would begin. And although there certainly have been multiple incidents that have created clear tensions in the relationship, it was always economics — over $700 billion in bilateral trade just last year alone — that kept any one disaster from dominating and destroying such ties for good.

But not anymore. As one now former senior White House official told me late last year: “[W]e will impose costs on China.”


No one should be shocked. The old glue that aligned Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s — the Soviet Union — was swept away over a quarter-century ago. But thanks to a combination of booming trade, the 9/11 attacks, wars in the Middle East and an economic crisis that took years to recover from, U.S. policymakers across several administrations clearly had bigger fish to fry.

So did China. Until the last decade, Beijing had prioritized building its economic and military muscle in a way that did not seem threatening enough to warrant a direct challenge by Washington. As Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously said, “Hide your strength, bide your time.”

The time has arrived, at least according to the recent actions of President Xi Jinping. From attempting to turn near-seas into sovereign territory, to building a world-class military with the intention of deterring or defeating America in combat, to stealing intellectual property and billions of dollars in defense research, Beijing seeks to not only dominate Asia and push America out of the region, but also to displace America on the world stage as the leading global superpower.

All of this can mean only one thing: the stage is set for a 21st century-style cold war that will shape our world for generations to come. But who, at least on paper, has the capacity to win such a contest?

If one looks objectively at all elements of national power, even though China has built up a massive economy and modernized military, Beijing would be wise to avoid any sort of long-term geopolitical contest; it surely would end up on the losing side, for several obvious reasons.

Who has the best allies in such a struggle would be an important indicator of who would win the new cold war. And unfortunately for China, its only ally is North Korea. America’s alliance network is global, with military bases across Asia and around the world. Washington’s treaty allies alone in the Asia-Pacific include South Korea and Japan — two of the world’s premier economic and military powers. When you consider America’s membership in NATO, where an attack on one is considered an attack on all, and its smaller regional partners, the depth of Washington’s overall diplomatic, economic and military alliance network is unmatched — and unchallengeable.

Next, despite China’s growing military might, America still holds a decisive advantage in overall training and warfighting capability. Beijing has never fought a modern war, whereas the United States has been involved in some form of armed conflict since 9/11. In fact, China’s last armed contest against another nation was a short war against Vietnam in 1979 — and China lost badly.

One must also look at each nation’s economic outlook to see who has the stronger fundamentals. Again, America comes out on top. Though some argue that China’s economic might will surpass America’s in 10 years or so, by measure of GDP, many economists argue that Beijing’s growth estimates are simply fiction. Some even claim China is only growing at an anemic 1 percent.

Also, Beijing has tremendous debt issues, largely a result of trying to spend its way out of the 2008 economic crisis. Such debt could worsen, with the Chinese government opening the liquidity taps knowing that U.S. tariffs will hurt export-led growth.

Finally, and most important, is the issue of demographics: China’s are a disaster. Thanks to a one-child policy that was meant to stem challenges from overpopulation, China’s population, as of last year, includes 241 million elderly citizens. By 2050, that number is expected to spike to 487 million, almost 35 percent of the population.

All the above only scratches the surface. If one also factors in things such as America’s growing dominance in energy markets, countless U.S. global business brands and the ability to attract the best talent globally, there is no way China could match America’s overall strength in the long term. The United States clearly has its own issues — debt and a divided political landscape being the most obvious — but Beijing would be hopelessly outmatched if a new cold war did come to pass. And knowing what happened to the Soviet Union, China would be wise to tread cautiously.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Republicans: Newly proposed ATF rules could pave way for national gun registry DeSantis tops Trump in 2024 presidential straw poll White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.