In President Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy, his administration cited China as the only country that, “Harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar world, American hegemony has been the subject of little questioning until recently, as China’s growing economic and military prowess has changed the landscape of international relations. Still, the United States is the world’s sole superpower. However, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, has left little doubt regarding China’s aspirations to receive superpower status, effectively shifting the global order.
This begs the question: Is a Cold War between the U.S. and China inevitable? The Steamboat Institute, an educational organization that promotes American principles by bringing together leaders in government and policy to college campuses, recently visited Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy (SPP) with former Montana Senator and President Obama’s Ambassador to China Max Baucus and former Ambassador-at-Large Kelley Currie to debate this topic.
Arguing in the affirmative is Ambassador Currie, who was appointed Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues by President Trump in 2019. Arguing the negation is Senator Max Baucus, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 2013, making him Montana’s longest-serving U.S. Senator. The Moderator for the evening was Dr. Robert Kaufman, political scientist and professor of Public Policy at SPP.
In Ambassador Currie’s opening statement, she asserted that the U.S. and China are “already in a Cold War with extremely hot elements.” She also expressed concerns about how to prevent this conflict from escalating and becoming hotter. Currie highlighted multiple challenges including: China’s alliances with authoritarian regimes, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China’s aggressive actions in diplomatic and military spheres – such as in the South Chinese Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Ambassador Currie urged a strategic response to protect U.S. interests and values and maintain international roles while staying committed to core democratic values in the wake of China’s ability to exploit a free and open society via disinformation.
Ambassador Baucus struck a different tone in his opening statement, wherein he emphasized the current U.S.-China relationship through the lens of the Thucydides Trap, which is characterized by tensions emerging between a rising power (China) and an established power (U.S.). He acknowledged the historical context surrounding both countries, highlighting the pride of each country – specifically, the U.S. post-WWII, in the creation of the world order, and in China’s deep-rooted desire for respect and its perception of past humiliation by foreign powers. Baucus advocated for diplomatic engagement based on mutual goodwill and accommodation, while also emphasizing the need for U.S. strength as essential elements of fostering a cooperative relationship with China.
As the debate continued, Professor Kaufman raised multiple questions. Is China’s ascent to number one inevitable? What is the nature of American decline? Ambassador Currie challenged the notion of China inevitably “becoming number one,” highlighting economic disparities from a per-capita standpoint. She introduced Stein’s Law, which suggests that “What can’t go on, won’t,” referencing the systemic inequalities inherent in the CCP, and contended with the CCP’s top priority, regime preservation – which directly conflicts with American values.
Baucus suggested that whether or not China, “Becomes number one,” is a matter of interpretation, and once again emphasized the need for U.S.-China cooperation. However, he also acknowledged the Faustian bargain within the Chinese government, which is leadership-provided care in exchange for obedience, and the ability for this agreement to cause instability.
Following this, a discussion began with a question about China’s comprehensive 30-year military buildup and its implications for potential confrontations in the Western Pacific. Currie highlighted the advantage China gains through purchasing power parity and military-civil fusion, enabling them to harness their entire economy for military modernization.
Currie urged the U.S. to address defense procurement challenges and offered technological innovation as a strategy to bridge the gap. Baucus then asserted that the U.S. was historically more of a military aggressor, citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and noted that China was more of an economic aggressor. Baucus called for the U.S. to strengthen its economic position and project economic power.
In Baucus’ final statement, he dismissed the relevance of framing the U.S.-China relationship as competitive and urged a shift from labels and criticism to better communication and understanding. He emphasized the inevitability of dealing with China and likened the U.S.-China relationship to an arranged marriage, urging both nations to find ways to accommodate each other. Baucus concluded by affirming the importance of the U.S. standing tall and participating in trade agreements to assert U.S. strength and influence.
Currie, in her final statement, highlighted her personal experiences engaging with ordinary Chinese citizens and how she gained insights into their struggles. She stressed the importance for the U.S. to approach China with resilience and clarity.
Currie also emphasized the need for candid conversations with China’s leadership about unacceptable practices, including the detention of individuals and the suppression of dissent. Despite these challenges, Currie expressed optimism in the collaborative efforts of global allies who share common aspirations with the U.S.
Finally, Currie suggested that the U.S.-China relationship may be an arranged marriage, but that she, “Would never encourage anyone in an abusive relationship to stay in one.