That the United States is facing a new Cold War with China seems more a matter of “when” than “if.”
For many U.S. politicians and pundits, this framing is evocative. U.S. collective memory of the Cold War skews triumphal. Many Americans remember then-President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, exhorting his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!” And the Berlin Wall did fall, demolished by those it had been constructed to contain. Shortly thereafter, the Iron Curtain collapsed, with students swarming the statue of St. Wenceslas in Prague and the Pan-European Picnic at the Austrian-Hungarian border. Gradually, and then suddenly, the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent parts, with a defiant Russian President Boris Yeltsin atop a tank and all those hammers and sickles discarded along the streets of Moscow.
America’s opponent was vanquished. The Soviet regime was overwhelmed not by force of arms but within the confines of ideological competition. Freedom had defeated tyranny. As it was with the Soviets, the thinking seems to be, so shall it be with China.
However, such recollection is risky. First, it presumes the certainty of victory. Small wonder, perhaps, as the United States is currently undefeated in Cold War competition. But we are working from a sample size of one. The number of near misses narrowly survived—a much larger sample ranging from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Able Archer 83 exercise—might well have rendered a catastrophic draw. There are no assurances that such luck will hold in another lengthy nuclear showdown. (Of course, such providence did not smile on those Americans who were drafted—and who died or were injured—during the original Cold War’s conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.)
Second, but similarly, the triumphalist framing omits decades of duck-and-cover drills, stocked bomb shelters, and air raid sirens. Imagine the impact this constant threat would have on the United States’ already fragile national psyche. Such a standoff with China may last for some number of decades. Even if the United States were to emerge victorious—or simply survive a lengthy showdown—it will have been traumatic. Where would the United States stand as a country?
Third, a focus on the final act of the first Cold War belies the fact that the defeat of totalitarian evil caused enormous costs to liberty at home. While some have argued increased international scrutiny about de jure segregation positively influenced U.S. civil rights law, civil liberties often took it on the chin.
The second Red Scare peaked with the House Un-American Activities Committee; U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; and the FBI investigating the U.S. military, government officials, public figures, and ordinary private citizens suspected of harboring communist sympathies, while the Truman administration’s 1947 “Loyalty Order” targeted alleged subversives within the civil service. Documents declassified in 2007 revealed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover planned to suspend habeas corpus and jail some 12,000 suspected American subversives. This was in 1950, the same year he took to the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association to warn of “communist germs” infecting the body politic. Hoover urged his audience of medical students, fellows, and physicians to report any evidence of contagion to the FBI.
Now imagine the weapons of hysteria arrayed before a 21st-century McCarthy or Hoover. With history as a guide, one can easily see federal surveillance and discipline growing more frequent and far-reaching as tensions mount in a new Cold War.
Consider that recently, against this new Cold War backdrop, a member of Congress publicly questioned the loyalty and allegiance of one of his fellow representatives, in part based on her Chinese American heritage. Republican Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas suggested his counterpart shouldn’t hold a security clearance or have access to classified briefings. To their credit, leaders of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party defended Rep. Judy Chu against these accusations. However, recall that when then-aspirant House Speaker Kevin McCarthy debuted the committee, he did so as part of a broad effort to confront the Chinese government and “win the new Cold War.” Internal hostility is an inevitable byproduct of this outlook. Are Truman-era loyalty oaths really off the table?
The fact that anti-China rhetoric might inspire suspicion of and discrimination against Asian Americans should not come as a surprise. The Trump-era China Initiative—which was launched to root out economic espionage—was scrapped and revamped by President Joe Biden’s Justice Department amid a series of court dismissals and complaints that it stoked xenophobia and racial animosity. Political instincts to combat China at the federal level have also trickled down to state legislatures. Proposed bans on Chinese ownership of agricultural land are circulating in at least 24 states by one count.
While national security considerations may impel some caution, the rush to curtail Chinese landholding may be a solution in search of a problem. Foreign entities have a stake in approximately 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land, or approximately 3 percent of all privately held farmland. Of this small percentage, China holds fewer than 400,000 acres, which is slightly less than one percent of foreign-held acres according to the most recent accounting by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, there are currently two bills in the Senate that aim to strip China of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status, a formal designation that assures preferential trade terms including lower tariffs and import quotas. One, introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley, would simply remove China’s PNTR status; the other, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, would suspend it until the president certifies that China is not engaged in various human rights violations, of the sort Beijing is already guilty of or that would be hard to verify (e.g., prohibiting the free exercise of religion or engaging in economic espionage).
Determining the total costs associated with striking trade relations with China would require elaborate econometric modeling. However, a glance at the Harmonized Tariff Schedule, which establishes the rates of duties and quotas for goods imported into the United States, suggests that tariffs on almost all goods would rise between 20 and 40 percent. Assuming reciprocation on Beijing’s part—and using a 2022 figure of $690 billion in bilateral trade—this would be a colossal hit to the U.S. economy. Prices on everything from cell phones to soybeans would spike drastically, to say nothing of diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Vicious commodity shocks and general economic uncertainty seem unlikely to harmonize U.S. society or unshackle the engines of prosperity for this contest of the century.
None of this is to say that China does not present threats to U.S. interests, regional stability, and the sovereignty of its neighbors. Beijing’s malign activities are legion. The Chinese Communist Party shares no genteel hang-ups about decorous conduct between congressional members, let alone threats to individual rights or penalties for disloyalty. It dumps goods, engages in corporate espionage and intellectual property theft, and forcibly interns ethnic minorities. Most alarmingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly signaled a desire to “reunify” the mainland with Taiwan, refusing to rule out a military invasion. All the more reason to provide Taipei with the defensive weapons necessary to make the island hard to swallow.
However, armoring Taiwan or disciplining bad Chinese economic policies does not require a Cold War posture at home. To the contrary, the militarization of U.S. society could amount to a Sinicization of U.S. life, complete with chilling new restrictions on speech, movement, and citizenship. The recent excesses of the post-9/11 era—including indefinite detention, torture, ethnic profiling, and government surveillance—provide sobering context. On a host of issues beyond the hard boundaries of national security, a Cold War crouch is inimical to a free, open, and flourishing society. In this case, U.S. interests are best served by preserving the values Americans cherish and establishing the United States as an aspirational model for other countries to emulate.
Ironically, perhaps, one may return to Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech to be reminded that “if history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly.” If that is the case, then let us learn from the past to plan for the present. Perhaps we may yet avoid the sort of obsessive overreactions that will squander what we seek to preserve.
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