U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino
Published in Foreign Affairs on August 3, 2020.
In just a few short months, the U.S.-Chinese relationship seems to have returned to an earlier, more primal age. In China, Mao Zedong is once again celebrated for having boldly gone to war against the Americans in Korea, fighting them to a truce. In the United States, Richard Nixon is denounced for creating a global Frankenstein by introducing Communist China to the wider world. It is as if the previous half century of U.S.-Chinese relations never happened.
The saber rattling from both Beijing and Washington has become strident, uncompromising, and seemingly unending. The relationship lurches from crisis to crisis—from the closures of consulates to the most recent feats of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy to calls by U.S. officials for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The speed and intensity of it all has desensitized even seasoned observers to the scale and significance of change in the high politics of the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Unmoored from the strategic assumptions of the previous 50 years but without the anchor of any mutually agreed framework to replace them, the world now finds itself at the most dangerous moment in the relationship since the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s.
The question now being asked, quietly but nervously, in capitals around the world is, where will this end? The once unthinkable outcome—actual armed conflict between the United States and China—now appears possible for the first time since the end of the Korean War. In other words, we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well.