Walter Russell Mead, author of the über-insightful ‘Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World,‘ asks, in the Wall Street Journal, “Did Cold War II break out last week while no one was watching?” He suggests that “As the Kavanaugh confirmation battle raged, many Americans missed what looks like the biggest shift in U.S.-China relations since Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing.”
“The Trump administration’s China policy swam into view,” he writes, “and it’s a humdinger. Vice President Mike Pence gave a guide to the approach in a speech last week at the Hudson Institute (where I am a fellow). Denouncing what he called China’s “whole of government” approach to its rivalry with the U.S., Mr. Pence vowed the Trump administration will respond in kind. He denounced China’s suppression of the Tibetans and Uighurs, its “Made in China 2025” plan for tech dominance, and its “debt diplomacy” through the Belt and Road initiative. The speech sounded like something Ronald Reagan could have delivered against the Soviet Union: Mr. Xi, tear down this wall! Mr. Pence also detailed an integrated, cross-government strategy to counter what the administration considers Chinese military, economic, political and ideological aggression.“
“In the same week as the vice president’s speech,” Professor Mead goes on to explain, “Navy plans for greatly intensified patrols in and around Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea were leaked to the press. Moreover, the recently-entered trilateral U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement was revealed to have a clause discouraging trade agreements between member countries and China. [My emphasis added.] The administration indicated it would seek similar clauses in other trade agreements. Also last week, Congress approved the Build Act, a $60 billion development-financing program designed to counter China’s Belt and Road strategy in Africa and Asia. Finally, the White House issued a report highlighting the danger that foreign-based supply chains pose to U.S. military capabilities in the event they are cut off during a conflict … [and, while] … Any one of these steps would have rated banner headlines in normal times; in the Age of Trump, all of them together barely registered. But this is a major shift in American foreign policy. As China responds, and as other countries formulate their approaches to the emerging U.S.-China rivalry, a new international reality will take shape. With many longtime U.S. allies opposed to the Trump administration on trade policy and other matters, and with Russia, North Korea and Iran all looking to frustrate U.S. goals, an indignant China looking for opportunities to make Washington pay may find help.“
He explains some of the potential pitfalls and political benefits of ‘Cold War II’ and concludes by saying that, “Replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, reshaping the Supreme Court, and launching a new Cold War in the same week is quite the trifecta. America may or may not be on the road to greatness under Mr. Trump, but it is certainly going somewhere, and at an accelerating pace.“
As if to back him up, the South China Morning Post says that “Top diplomats from China and the US engaged in a frosty exchange on Monday as US Secretary Mike Pompeo declared the two powers were stuck in “fundamental disagreement” over a range of issues from trade to China’s domestic and foreign policies … [and] … The exchange, between Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, displayed an unusually stern tone from both sides, amid rising tension between the world’s two largest economies.” It is all very reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s, except that, back then, America had a grand alliance that stretched from Canada, through most of Western Europe to Australia and Japan that were all united with it against the USSR. It is not clear to me that, despite Chinese meddling in Europe, there is anything like that unity of purpose in 2018. The Trump administration seems to believe that it can “go it alone” and that the world must follow … or be damned.
What concerns me most is the notion that America is headed “somewhere” and “at an accelerating pace.” Where? I ask myself, and, what’s the rush?
I think we now have a bit clearer idea of the Lighthizer-Ross-Trump doctrine: they want an all out, no-holds-barred trade war with China and they want that as just one part of a new Cold War which aims to do to China what Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Cater and Reagan did to the former USSR. I really wish I thought there was some strategic merit in the US plan, but I don’t.
We, the US led West, won the Cold War against the USSR because we had a coherent strategy: containment coupled with, quite simply, building a far better, indeed an exemplary society. The Russians fell into a trap that Eisenhower set; they, in an effort to appease the so-called non-aligned movement, pledged not to use nuclear weapons first; Ike demurred. The Russian had to fund a HUGE conventional military; Ike brought troops home to work on farms and in factories and relied upon a nuclear trip-wire strategy coupled with the somewhat nihilistic MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine to keep Russia at bay, cheaply. By 1960 the USSR was in an economic mess from which it would never recover and the US led West was booming. It was a gamble on Eisenhower’s part but it was a good one and he won the first Cold War. The Chinese are not Russians; they are building a formidable military force but nothing like the size and costs of America’s because they don’t need it … they need to be able to challenge all comers in just one theatre, the South China Seas and East Asia, and, simply, and cheaply, show the flag, often by UN peacekeeping, in the rest of the world. China has only one ‘natural’ enemy: Russia, with which it shares the Eurasian continent. It doesn’t want America as an enemy; it just wants America to leave the Asian mainland.
But President Trump seems hell bent on a full blown Cold War with China; and he seems intent on forcing America’s allies to sign on to it, too. I’m sure most thinking people would like a world dominated by Xi Jinping even less than we like one dominated by Donald Trump but I’m not convinced that Cold War 2.0 is either desirable or winnable. As I said, China is not Russia, and, sad to say, the US is no longer Truman’s, Eisenhower’s or even George HW Bush’s America, and the US led West is, de facto, leaderless.