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

  • Juan Zhang
  • Nov, 2020
  • 172
  • Interview

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

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.

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...

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