Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition

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Release Date: 
July 5, 2023
Georgetown University Press
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“There is a general consensus among the contributors to Cold Rivals that the strategic competition between the US and China will continue into the foreseeable future . . .”

There is considerable agreement among the contributors—including Chinese contributors—to Cold Rivals that US-China relations in the third decade of the 21st century are dominated by “strategic competition” across all domains—economic, political, military, technological, information, and cyber. 

During the last 50 years, America and China have shifted from being de facto strategic allies against the Soviet Union to becoming great power rivals that compete both regionally and globally. Though some of the contributors shy away from the term, there is a new Cold War brewing that both resembles in some ways and differs in other ways from the US-Soviet Cold War.

Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service has brought together scholars from the United States and China to attempt to explain the causes of the US-China rivalry, predict future scenarios ranging from detente to war, and to suggest ways to manage the conflict that promotes the interests of both countries and avoids the “Thucydides Trap” of war between rising and declining powers.

University of Virginia professor Harry Harding, the Hoover Institution’s Elizabeth Economy, and Columbia University’s Richard K. Betts provide useful overviews of the evolution of US-China relations from Nixon-era cooperation to immediate post-Cold War engagement, to a mix of engagement and competition to the containment practiced by  the Trump administration, and finally to the Biden administration’s search for a balance between competition and areas of shared interests.

National Defense University’s Phillip Saunders assesses the growing military competition between the US and China, emphasizing China’s modernization of its naval, missile, and nuclear forces, and noting China’s growing capabilities to confront American forces in the western Pacific. Helen Toner and Paul Triolo discuss the technological aspect of the rivalry, while Arthur Kroeber traces the origins of the rivalry to economic competition. James Mulvenon, meanwhile, discusses the espionage component of the new Cold War.

In the book’s concluding essays, David Edelstein, David Shambaugh, and Medeiros suggest possible scenarios for future US-China relations. There is a general consensus among the contributors to Cold Rivals that the strategic competition between the US and China will continue into the foreseeable future, and that the best realistic outcome is “managed” competition that falls short of actual kinetic war.

The basis for US-China cooperation ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, yet successive US administrations—even after Tiananmen Square—thought that China had discarded communist ideology in favor of market economics and a more open society. It was wishful thinking. Then, after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the US became distracted in Afghanistan and Iraq while the growing Chinese threat proceeded apace.

All of the contributors—including the Chinese scholars—agree that the Trump administration is largely responsible for the shift in US policy from peripheral wars in the Middle East and the Global War on Terror to a focus on great power rivalry with China. Although the Obama administration announced a “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific, it was Trump’s policies that sought to bring a “whole of government” approach to competition with China.

The Chinese contributors assign blame to Trump for worsening relations between China and the US, while the American scholars grudgingly credit Trump for recognizing and reacting to China’s more assertive policies under Xi Jinping. And all of the contributors note that the Biden administration for all of its anti-Trump rhetoric has continued some of Trump’s economic sanctions and used similar rhetoric in describing the China threat.

It is no longer possible for the United States to wish away the harsh reality of a new Cold War with China. The first Cold War lasted 45 years. The new Cold War—against a more economically powerful competitor—may last much longer. And the outcome may not be the same.