Interviews | Diplomacy

Harry Harding on the US, China, and a ‘Cold War 2.0’

“Calling it a second Cold War is misleading, but to deny that it’s a Cold War is also disingenuous.”

Shannon Tiezzi
By Juan Zhang and for
Harry Harding on the US, China, and a ‘Cold War 2.0’
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

The Diplomat and the US-China Perception Monitor recently had a joint interview on the topic of U.S.-China relations with Professor Harry Harding of the University of Virginia.

Harding is a specialist on Asia and U.S.-Asian relations. His major publications include Organizing China: The Problem of Bureaucracy, 1949-1966; China’s Second Revolution: Reform after Mao; A Fragile Relationship: the United States and China since 1972; and the chapter on the Cultural Revolution in the Cambridge History of China.

Below are Harding’s thoughts on the idea of a new Cold War – what he calls the “Cold War 2.0” – between the United States and China. You can read more from Harding on the U.S.-China relationship here.

Scholars have different opinions on whether we are in a Cold War. You coined a phrase called Cold War 2.0 to describe the current state of bilateral relations. Could you explain your thinking?

The phrase “new Cold War” is an example of the use of analogies in understanding the world. The world is a very complicated place. People like to find ways of coming to a clearer and simpler understanding. That’s human nature, I think. And one way to do that is by theory, in other words, to apply theories of political science, international relations, and comparative politics to other countries to understand where they are and where they’re going. Another way of simpler thinking is by historical analogy, by comparing the past and the present, to try to find similarities and draw lessons from the past. That’s always tempting, but it’s always dangerous because the present is never exactly like the past.

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In some ways, this is like the original Cold War. It’s a global competition between two superpowers. It’s a competition that is multi-dimensional; it is a competition that will involve episodic confrontation. It’s a competition over ideas and political and economic systems, although the differences between China and the United States are somewhat less than the differences between China and the Soviet Union. But the big differences between then and now are, first of all, that China and the United States have been, up until now, much more interdependent than the United States and the Soviet Union or between the United States and China before normalization.

I remember one very memorable comparison, that before the American pingpong team visited China in April 1971, more Americans had set foot on the moon than had been to the People’s Republic of China, with the permission of both governments. (You can see a little qualifier there because some had tried to sneak in, or had been there in various ways without the authorization of both governments.) But we had much more contact with China before 1949 than we did up until the late 1960s and early 1970s when rapprochement began to occur, let alone after 1979, when normalization had taken place.

So, the United States and China had been mutually isolated during the Mao era just as the United States and the Soviet Union had been mutually isolated during the Cold War. Now we are very much more interdependent. There is a lot of decoupling going on, but it’s going to be difficult to make that a complete mutual isolation and interdependence will continue to be a factor in the relationship.

But I think the biggest difference is that the Chinese economy seems, at this point, to be much more vibrant, much more sustainable than the Soviet economy, and therefore the Chinese political system is likely to be much more resilient than the Soviet Union’s was.

The Cold War moderated when the Soviet Union’s economy was beginning to stagnate, and then it ended when the Soviet Union collapsed. There are some who predict the collapse of China, as you well know, either the Chinese economy, the Chinese political system or both, but right now that seems relatively unlikely. So China will be, I think, a far more effective competitor than the Soviet Union was.

Finally, another difference is that the arenas of competition will be quite different. Yes, there will be competition over military hardware and other important technologies, but a wider range than in the original Cold War, when it was basically a competition over space exploration and weapons systems. Now it’s still going to include those two, but also artificial intelligence, quantum computing, new generations of information and communications technologies, new materials, nanotechnology, and autonomous systems.

There will be competition over these new technologies but the biggest difference to me is the way in which social media and cyber warfare will provide new kinds of competition and potentially offensive weapons. Those were not available at all during the original Cold War. That’s why I call it Cold War 2.0, to imply both that it is another Cold War, very competitive while hopefully not becoming a hot war, but also that in other ways it will be quite different than the original Cold War. I think that calling it a second Cold War is misleading, but to deny that it’s a Cold War is also disingenuous. Cold War 2.0 is a better way of implying that it will be similar but also very different.

Have you thought about the end game of Cold War 2.0? The Cold War ended up with the Soviet Union losing and the U.S. winning. Do you envision this would apply to the Cold War 2.0?

This is a very important question. What is the end state that the United States would like to see, and what is the end state that might actually happen? I don’t think that the United States government has announced a very clear view as to what it wants to happen in China. I think that there are some who actually would like to see the Chinese Communist Party lose power. I think more people in the government and in the United States generally are looking for a change in Chinese policies, both inside and outside its borders. Some would add that that is really going to require a change of leadership in China.

There’s no real agreement even as to what we want, let alone what is actually going to happen. I’m not able to predict what’s going to happen; it’s too complicated. We obviously could begin to spin out a lot of different scenarios, and then try to estimate the factors that might make one more likely than another. And maybe even identify the American policies that could influence the conditions under which one might occur, or another not, but that is a very complicated exercise and we would have to be revising it on almost a daily basis.

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On July 9, China’s foreign minister gave a speech on U.S.-China relations, and in his remarks he said, “China and the U.S. must work to find ways to peaceful coexistence, with different systems and civilizations.” What messages did you get from these words? Is China’s proposed coexistence a feasible solution for the period of Cold War 2.0?

It’s very interesting that China has now endorsed the concept of peaceful coexistence. China, of course, has been very firm in rejecting the idea of a second Cold War and in criticizing Cold War thinking but, of course, the concept of peaceful coexistence comes right from the first Cold War. This was the way in which the United States and the Soviet Union tried to manage their relationship at a middle stage of the original Cold War. So I find it quite interesting that China is bringing it up again. But just as analogies are never perfect, I’m skeptical about the applicability of coexistence to the U.S.-China relationship today. Peaceful, yes, of course we hope it will remain peaceful; but peaceful coexistence, I’m skeptical about it. Why? It depends, of course, what is meant by coexistence. And it’s not clear to me what Beijing means by this.

If what China wants is enthusiastic American acceptance of the Chinese model as best for China – the Chinese people have made their choice; the United States respects that choice and admires it; it is working for China and maybe for other countries as well. If that is what Beijing means, then don’t think that is going to happen. There are too many aspects of the Chinese model of domestic governance, and even domestic economic policy, that simply run against basic American values.

So if that’s what the Chinese are looking for, then I think it’s going to be difficult for the United States to respect all aspects of the Chinese model. You can respect a fact, acknowledge a fact, respect and acknowledge power, but to respect it in the sense that you admire it or approve of it, that I think is going to be very difficult. And if China means accommodation to Chinese core interests, that’s not necessarily part of peaceful coexistence in the original sense, but it is certainly something that the Chinese have talked about. And, in fact, mutual respect for each other’s core interests was a key element in another formula that China presented in recent years: the concept of a new type of major power relations. It then depends on what those core interests are. If China’s core interest is to use any means necessary including force to compel the unification of Taiwan against the will of the Taiwanese people, then the United States is not going to be able to respect that core interest either. If it means to try to weaken American alliances in Asia, then that is also not going to be something the United States will find easy to accept. So I think it really depends on the details of what the Chinese are implying by peaceful coexistence.

One the five principles of peaceful coexistence that China advocated early in the first Cold War was non-interference and respect for sovereignty, and again, respecting the choices that other countries make. That was again, much easier to agree to when China and the United States, and the United States and the Soviet Union were basically not connected with one another, but with so many people now, including myself, living and working in China, in Taiwan, and Hong Kong, we are directly affected by what Beijing sees as its domestic policies. For example, China sees the national security law in Hong Kong as something that is its own sovereign right to decide for Hong Kong because Hong Kong was not enacting it itself and the rest of the world should understand that this was China’s sovereign right. Other countries should not interfere and should not criticize.

But I live every day in the tense situation created by the National Security Law in Hong Kong. When I go to Taiwan which I will be doing again shortly, I will live under the threat of a possible Chinese decision to use force against Taiwan to compel unification. If it comes to that, it’s very difficult for me to be indifferent and just say, that’s only China’s business. So, I think interdependence actually has this mixed impact on the relationship. In some ways it is stabilizing, but otherwise it is destabilizing. We have to understand both sides of that coin.