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Competition is the best way to avoid direct military confrontation

by Laurentiu Rebega

Simmering crises in Ukraine and Taiwan have reminded leaders that geopolitics never die. Yet President Biden declared at the United Nations in September that the U.S. is “not seeking a new Cold War” with either China or Russia. Mr. Biden has sought to downsize the scope of the competition with China while seeking cooperation on areas of mutual interest. This is the wrong approach. A Cold War-style competition with China is precisely what the U.S. should want.

At the U.N., Mr. Biden warned that cooperation is the only responsible way “to address the urgent threats like Covid-19 and climate change or enduring threats like nuclear proliferation.” A cold-war mentality, he said, could easily “tip from responsible competition to conflict,” leading to a serious military catastrophe. This was clearly on the president’s mind in August when he justified the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by comparing it favorably to Vietnam.

In fact, a cold war with China would mean averting a direct military confrontation. Even better, a cold war is a winnable war.

Some have speculated that rapid technological change in autonomous weaponry through artificial intelligence and robotics would make avoiding war more difficult. But the Cold War lasted more than four decades without tipping into World War III, even amid a technological revolution that made mutually assured destruction possible at the flick of a switch. American military strength deterred a Soviet attack, while major investments by Washington in the political and economic stability of important states such as Japan, France, West Germany and Italy countered Soviet subversion and coercion. The framework proved that arms races don’t necessarily lead to armed conflict.

At the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. was in a far better economic and military position than the Soviet Union. The American economy accounted for half of global gross domestic product, and Washington was able to establish strong postwar alliances quickly. The Soviet Union, by contrast, had suffered enormously during World War II, losing a large percentage of its population and productive capacity. It could strike alliances only through fear, coercion or invasion.

Today, the American geopolitical position is strong even if Chinese gains have eroded the overall U.S. military advantage. The U.S. and its allies represent 50% of global GDP. Washington is allied with or has increasingly friendly relations with nearly every country in Asia. The strength of American soft power underscores the appeal of the U.S. democratic system and the American way of life.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, fears its own people. Beijing’s internal security budget has grown faster than its national defense budget. Despite last week’s public display of affection between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in Beijing, China has no major allies and its behavior is driving increasingly unfriendly relations with nearly every nation. Deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan is important, but it isn’t the only measure of who has the stronger geopolitical position.

A cold war means a full-spectrum competition, allowing the U.S. to compete in domains where it has comparative advantages, such as finance, higher education and advanced engineering. Hard power will be necessary but not sufficient for “winning the 21st century.” In the late 20th century, strength bought time, but it was ultimately the moral corruption and ideological hypocrisy of the Soviet Union that caused its collapse. It could control and rule its citizens only through fear. When the fear began to crack, its rule was no more.

The U.S. should highlight the totalitarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party and demonstrate that there is a better way for Chinese citizens to live. The U.S. remains an attractive place for ordinary Chinese people. More than half of China’s top-tier researchers end up moving to the U.S., which has the highest-ranked universities and the highest-grossing technology companies. China may be able to keep up with the U.S. militarily, but it can’t compete in a broad and sustained competition for hearts and minds.

In 1938, Winston Churchill saw that fascism and liberal democracy were on a collision course. Rather than shy away from the threat, he recognized that “the antagonism is here now.” Instead of viewing this ideological competition as a liability, Churchill saw that the “conflict of spiritual and moral ideas” is what “gives the free countries a great part of their strength.” If the competition with China is truly about the future of the 21st century—whether democracy as a creed and the American experiment as a civilization can survive in the face of its greatest challenge yet—the U.S. should be ecstatic at the prospects of a cold war.

If fruitful cooperation is a fantasy and a hot war is a nightmare, a cold war with China is the lucid dream that Mr. Biden and his successors should embrace.

Gabriel Scheinmann

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