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A New Cold War is a Bad Idea

A New Cold War is a Bad Idea

Tuesday, 19 May, 2020 - 18:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I have seen a lot of discussion here and in other media about a new cold between the United States and China. I was a student and then a young diplomat during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. I remember our fear of the Soviet Union and the intense competition for political and economic superiority. To contain Soviet influence America intervened militarily around the world. It caused the disaster of the Vietnam War. The Cold War pushed Soviet interventions against reform movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.


We almost had a nuclear war because of new Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. Will we see this behavior again?


The coronavirus surely has increased tensions between China and the United States. The Trump administration blames China for creating the virus and for enabling it to spread. China has answered angrily and it stresses the weak Trump administration management of the virus crisis in the United States.


Now there is a race between China and the United States to discover a vaccine. The Trump administration worries that if Chinese scientists produce the vaccine first, China will not provide it to the United States, and the Chinese economy will recover from the virus damage before the American economy. We can imagine how Trump and his “America First” policy will try to exploit the vaccine if the Americans produce it first.


Trade relations have been difficult for years. Trump answered Chinese export subsidies and violations of American intellectual property by raising American tariffs. Trump and Chinese President Xi reached a settlement in January requiring China to buy more American products and for the United States in return to reduce its tariffs on Chinese products. The current economic crisis makes implementation of this trade deal more difficult, and already American companies’ sales to China are declining.


At the same time, the Trump administration aims to reduce the commercial power of the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. Last week the Trump administration stopped sales of technology parts to Huawei from American companies. Beijing angrily threatened to retaliate against American technology companies.


Washington has taken an additional step of stopping some government investment funds from entering the Chinese stock market and has also threatened to remove some Chinese companies from the Wall Street stock market.


And I will not discuss military competition between the two countries. I will only comment that it is serious, especially in the South China Sea.


The American position will become harsher. As the November presidential election campaign begins, Trump’s antagonistic position towards China will be a cornerstone of his campaign for reelection. Trump’s advisors read the April 13 Pew Research opinion survey that showed that 62 percent of Americans think China is a major threat to American security, more than Russia or Iran.


Meanwhile, Trump’s rival in November, Joseph Biden, needs the helped of the leftist wing of the Democratic Party that had supported Bernie Sanders. Sanders was urging restrictions on trade and stopping the transfer of American factory jobs to countries like China. Biden and Sanders have created a joint team to prepare the economic plan for a new Biden administration. The team doesn’t like Trump economic policies, but they aren’t satisfied with Chinese trade also. The new disruptions to business between Chinese and American companies because of the virus will accelerate American diversification of commercial relations and reduce American commercial relations with China.


However, the competition between China and the United States differs from the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The economic integration between China and the United States makes big profits for some – not all – American companies, farmers and even schools. US exports of goods to China in 2018 were 107 billion dollars. In 1990, US exports of goods to the Soviet Union was only 1 billion dollars. Diversification will require many years. Few Americans ever visited the Soviet Union but last year over 2 million Americans went to China and 3 million Chinese citizens visited the United States.


I live in a small town and in our secondary school a fourth of the students are Chinese with student visas. I teach at Yale University which has hundreds of Chinese students. American and Chinese students will face a world with climate change, risks to global health and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Competition between Beijing and Washington is inevitable but leaders also need to emphasize cooperation on common challenges.


Unfortunately, in a year of elections talk of cooperation will be rare in Washington. Our friends in the Middle East can also expect more American pressure on their relations with China.


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