The US-China clash, Part 1: The new “Cold War-itis”

There are now a number of fronts along which the US and China are engaged in direct economic or political conflict which reinforce the decoupling tendency. So, what mainly started as a vicious trade war is now generally considered to be a “cold war”. It is important to understand what this concept means and how it matches for this situation to avoid a misconception and a minimization of its scope due to a “Cold War-itis” traditionally related to the conflict between the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Using the term “cold war” carries an implicit weight and responsibility within academia, since this technological and globalized world deserves much larger and complex studies that do not reduce reality to a bipolar (or even tripolar) conflict only.

The meaning and origin of the concept “cold war”

In the narrow sense, a cold war is a state of conflict that does not involve direct military action. The most well-known is the post-World War II stand-off between the USSR and the US although “some credit 14th century Spaniard Don Juan Manuel for first using the concept when referencing the conflict between Christianity and Islam.” [1] The term began to be used sparingly since the 1930s “to describe the increasingly fraught relationships between European countries” [2] but the starting point of its widespread popularity was its appearance in George Orwell’s essay “You and the Atomic Bomb” published on October 19, 1945 after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The famous English journalist Herbert Bayard Swope is credited with coining for the first time the term “Cold War”[3](often with capital letters) to the prolonged state of hostility between the communist bloc and the capitalist bloc.[4] In 1947, the concept gained much more popularity due to its use by recognized personalities such as the journalist Walter Lippmann and the multimillionaire and financier Bernard Baruch, who contributing to the unleashing of its wide use in the media, mainly the U.S’s newspapers and magazines. Although standard narratives have focused on the US-USSR rivalry as if the superpowers were the exclusive driving forces of the international system, experts as Lorenz M. Lüthi, Pierre Asselin and Hope M. Harrison, suggest that the communist-capitalist rivalry grossly oversimplifies all that was happening around the world. In this sense, decentering the Cold War from the US-Soviet conflict yields a much richer, truer to life international portrayal of this period. [5]

The background of the chronic “Cold War-itis”

During the US-USSR Cold War there was no major direct military conflict but the nuclear anxiety predicted by Orwell [6]was the main constant threat for the whole world. “The bipolar, largely ideologically driven struggle between the capitalist bloc (the US, its NATO allies and others) versus the communist bloc (the USSR, the Warsaw Pact members and others)” [7] was characterized by the political conundrums, the arms race, the missile crisis, espionage and propaganda, the race to develop the best technologies, weapons and space exploration, as well as regional conflicts known as “proxy wars” –in which other nations fought the superpowers’ battles [8]. This conflagration finished with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of a “unipolar moment” –meaning unchallenged US global hegemony [9] – during which Washington largely set the global agenda. [10]

Twenty three years later, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 triggered the resurgence of what Simon Tisdall called a chronic “Cold War-itis” –related to the metaphor of the  “inflamed” concern about the conflict between the US and Russia–, because of the escalating tensions between Putin’s Russia and western countries led by the US who blamed the Russian leader for its supposed expansionism, confrontational and often illegal behavior including its not-forgotten 2008 military intervention in Georgia. The similarities with the old bipolar days manifested in some significant respects: tanks and troops invading a satellite state, tit-for-tat spy expulsions, gas supply cut-offs, angry diplomatic exchanges”, etc. This time the battleground and the battle-line were less clear and the ideological context had changed. Nevertheless, some claimed that the Cold War was back while others began to speak of a “new Cold War”. [11]

The “tripolar Cold War”: A global tinderbox

Because of the continuing tensions between the United States and Russia, in 2018 the idea of a “new Cold War” –which as we can see is still latent, and appears when tensions increase– gained popularity again. Michael Klare defined the conflict as a “new global tinderbox” that bears only the most minimal resemblance to the earlier period, such as an accelerating arms race focused on nuclear, a conventional weaponry and a global power struggle, but for him the similarities ended there, because he argued that it was not some mildly updated replica of last century’s Cold War, but a new and potentially even more dangerous global predicament in which the US faces two determined adversaries: Russia and China.[12] At that moment, the three countries were intimidating rivals, including menacing US and Chinese naval maneuvers in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the US and Russia appeared intent on tearing up existing accords and launching a new nuclear arms race. [13]

In 2020, this “tripolar” dynamic has apparently vanished, with its more powerful participants, the US and China, redirecting their attention towards each other in what can be considered another “new bipolar cold war”, placing Russia out of the scope of the global tinderbox. However, although China and Russia have recently promised to maintain what they call a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, in the last months cracks have been appearing among which perhaps the most explosive issue of all is the suggestion in recent weeks that Washington wants to be closer to its old Cold War adversary as a way of countering growing Chinese might [14], what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thinks it is an opportunity.

The clash between US-China and the decoupling tendency

The relationship between the US and China has been particularly difficult, showing ups and downs during the last four decades related to the great growth of the Chinese economy, which has effectively exacerbated the hegemonic competition between these two countries. The conflict became more evident and aggressive during the Trump administration, and it has increased seriously because of the origin and management of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has arguably been the straw that broke the camel’s back for the conflict between the US and China.

“Decoupling transcends trade and investment and it could mean a peeling back of goods and services trade, divestment from China and the relocation of the American manufacturing presence out of China, but also a fragmentation of the global supply chain.”[15] Some aspects of the decoupling of the world’s top two economies began even before Trump took office in 2017, but ties between China and the US have particularly deteriorated in the last two years, with tit-for-tat punitive tariffs, sanctioning of government officials, rising tech rivalry, general geopolitical tensions and targeting of media outlets. All these developments have pulled the two superpowers further apart.

Although this tendency of economic divorce could be attractive to many, particularly the US government (both Republican and Democratic Party members), it would undermine the US’ strategic interests, particularly because, as David P. Golman sets, it is not a policy, but a tantrum [16]. There are now a number of fronts along which the two countries are engaged in direct economic or political conflict which reinforce the decoupling tendency: trade, finance, technology, diplomacy, science, security and human rights, to mention the most important until now. So, what mainly started as a vicious trade war in 2018 as part of the decoupling ideal –without omitting previous tensions–is now generally considered to be a “cold war”.

A new type of cold war confrontation

Though in theory the old Cold War has come to an end, tensions between Russia and the west, especially the US, still make headlines today. However, the threat of the return of the bipolar ideological conflict or the arrival of its version 2.0 has been overshadowed by the new cold war upheld by the two economic superpowers. As Simon Tisdale has argued, any new cold war-type confrontation would differ in scope and range from the worldwide frozen conflict that dominated the latter half of the 20th century and it would not be truly global [17], and this new economic cold war between the US and China confirms it. We can identify some of the more relevant differences:

  • Regarding the ideological clash, although leaders continue to bring up the “threat of communism”, the competition with capitalism has evaporated.
  • For some countries, particularly in Asia, relative neutrality seems to be the position more feasible to keep the relation with both economies (what does not rule out the possibility that some of them may be forced to choose one or the other).
  • Anti-communist rhetoric is used for localized political purposes, and the US’ search for a new common enemy has been the most obvious projection of its policy of containment of China exacerbated by the Trump administration.
  • China has emerged as “a far more sophisticated rival than the USSR, capable of challenging not just the preeminence of the US military but also its economic, scientific and cultural dominance to a degree the Soviet Union could never match”. [18] Though ‘Chinese Dream’ is still far away from being the replacement of the unreachable ‘American dream’, “COVID-19 has certainly exposed the limited appeal of US’ soft power.” [19]
  • Soft power has gained ground against hard power strategies. While China has invested enormous resources in developing its soft power – a way to co-opt rather than coerce or wage economic wars [20] – so far it has had mixed results. [21]
  • While the US and Russia possess the largest number of nuclear weapons [22] and remain at the forefront of the countries that have conducted the largest number of nuclear weapons tests [23], China “has espoused a strategy known as ‘minimum deterrence,’ which seeks to ensure that a nation would have a sufficient second-strike capability if it were to suffer a nuclear attack”.[24] In practice, however, this does not exclude China from nuclear competition.
  • China has been a member of the World Trade Organization since 2001 and is a key driver of the world’s economy while the Soviets were completely cut off (largely by their own choice) from global trade.
  • Most US’ companies don’t want to move lock, stock, and barrel out of China—a likely occurrence in a cold war. [25]
  • China’s increasing military budget is still a fraction of the US military budget, whereas military goals and spending dominated the Soviet economy. [26]

We should not omit that “a number of global and regional tensions over the years have also been labelled cold wars. These have taken place across the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Asia. In the Middle East, the term ‘cold war’ refers to the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In South Asia, it has been in use since 2002 and refers to long-term tensions between India and Pakistan.” [27] In this sense, in addition to the study of the US-USSR conflict, decentering the understanding of the “new Cold War” from the US-China struggle, will yield a much richer, truer to life international portrayal of this period and avoid a misconception and a minimization of its scope. This means that we cannot ignore the participation of diverse actors at all levels, such as the European Union and the ASEAN and transnational corporations like Huawei and ByteDance, as they directly and indirectly affect this conflict. As far as the theoretical part is concerned, we cannot reduce the study of this case to the classical theories of international relations either.

It’s not too late to avoid another “Cold War-itis”

It is clear that the West still does not understand China, a country with its own particularities that has been identified mainly by the United States as the new common enemy because it is the only one capable of challenging it. This is not to say that China is blameless, but rather that it is not a conflict between “good and bad”, since in the end anyone who threatens peace and human security, as well as human rights, must be pointed out, regardless of their economic and political system.

Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has broad support from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and has been considered China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. His plan to make China the world’s hegemony by 2049 –based on projects like “Made in China” (MIC 2025) and the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative– reflects his vision of the ‘Chinese dream’, so we cannot expect this clash to end any time soon, since the decoupling tendency, as a containment respond, will remain independently of who governs the US, despite the experience left by the Trump administration of what happens if confrontation is chosen instead of cooperation.

Although the support of the idea of strengthening multilateralism has had quite resonance, the economic disadvantages of the other countries vis-à-vis the two superpowers leaves them without an enough framework for action. So, to avoid a new “Cold War-itis”, they should not follow the idea of parting the world in two, nor even in the rhetoric, since that will be counterproductive for their international relations. Trump, for example, has been blaming China for the pandemic to evade its responsibility for the wrong manage of the sanitary crisis in his country, and while he still breaking the multilateral system, China has been filling the gaps that the US is leaving.


[1] Sofia Petkar, What is a cold war, what’s the definition and where does the phrase come from?, The Sun News, April 14, 2018.

[2] Erin Blakemore, What was the Cold War?, National Geographic.

[3] Domagoj Valjak, In 1945 George Orwell coined the term “Cold War” and predicted decades of nuclear anxiety, The Vintage News, February 9, 2017.

[4] Katherine Connor Martin, George Orwell and the origin of the term ‘cold war, October 24, 2015.

[5] Wilson Center, Event: Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Washington History Seminar, History and Public Policy Program, July 20, 2020., [consult: August 23, 2020].

[6] Domagoj Valjak, op. cit.

[7] Michael Jabara Carley, The Early Cold War, 1917 – 1939, 5th annual Great War Society seminar, Bethesda Marriott Hotel, USA, 29 Sept. – 1 Oct. 1995.

[8] Sofia Petkar, op. cit.

[9] Simon Tisdall, The new cold war: are we going back to the bad old days?, The Guardian Newspaper, November 19, 2014.

[10] Michael Jabara Carley, op. cit.

[11] Simon Tisdall, op. cit.

[12] Michael Klare, The New Cold War Is a Lot More Dangerous Than the Old, Foreing Policy in Focus, November 1, 2018.

[13] Idem

[14]Maria Siow, Could Russia side with the US and India against China?, South China Morning Post, August 22, 2020.

[15] South China Morning Post: US-China decoupling.

[16] David P. Goldman, The idea of an economic divorce is attractive to many, but it would undermine America’s strategic interests, The Asia Times, April 14, 2020.

[17] Simon Tisdall, op. cit.

[18] Gregory Mitrovich, A new Cold War? Not quite., The Washington Post, March 21, 2019.

[19] Mathew J. Burrows, What we’re forgetting about the Cold War, Atlantic Council, August 10, 2020.

[20] Joshep S. Nye, JR., Donald Trump and the Decline of US Soft Power, [en línea], Project Syndicate, Cambridge, 6 de febrero de 2018, Dirección URL:

[21] George Gao, Why Is China So … Uncool?, Foreign Policy, March 8, 2017,

[22] See: ICAN, The World’s Nuclear Weapons.

[23] See: Erin Duffin, Worldwide number of nuclear tests from 1945 to 2020, Statista,16 July, 2020.

[24] Dave Makichuk, China’s growing nuclear strength worries the Pentagon, Asia Times, August 3, 2020.

[25] Mathew J. Burrows, What we’re forgetting about the Cold War, Atlantic Council, August 10, 2020.

[26] Idem

[27] Sofia Petkar, op. cit.

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