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Observers from the CIA to academics to the White House to government leaders in China have referred to recent tensions between the U.S. and China as a potential “new Cold War.” But is this description accurate? The Cold War was a period of intense anxiety within both countries, a time where the prospect of nuclear war was legitimate. There was an ideological battle between capitalism and communism, and both countries fought proxy wars to advance their interests across the globe.

There are some important differences between the modern relationship of the U.S. and China and the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. The Cold War was waged after a period of expansive global wars that led to massive economic contraction. This is very different from the present day, where the U.S. and China tensions have come after a long period of economic growth and globalization. The Soviet Union had mostly co-opted nearby countries, whereas China still faces political opposition from some of its closest neighbors. The Soviets also shunned capitalism, while China has gone to great lengths to embed itself in the global trading system. 

This struggle is not over economic systems, but political ones. The U.S. wants other countries to emulate its democratic system while China contents its anti-democratic model is more efficient.

The Cold War was clearly an ideological struggle in addition to the threat of physical war. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union wanted their economic systems to reign supreme, and they pushed for their political allies to adopt their favored economic system. The relationship between the U.S. and China today has an ideological component, but it is on a different dimension. This struggle is not over economic systems, but political ones. The U.S. wants other countries to emulate its democratic system while China contends that its anti-democratic model of governance is more efficient.

Both countries are likely to pour resources into pushing their political systems on their allies through soft power and diplomacy. In China’s case, this will likely come through in the form of aid, cheap loans, and infrastructure deals for developing nations in order to build goodwill and develop new markets.

A big difference between modern China and Cold War Russia is the globalization factor. China is so embedded into the global trading system that the U.S. could not decouple its economy without significantly harming its own citizens’ pocketbooks. On the other hand, strengthening ties with China or easing sanctions could make China’s economy stronger.

There have been some key industries where both nations have tried to silo off certain technologies. The U.S. in particular has moved to ban Chinese technology companies from offering 5G products over security concerns. This trend will likely continue, but only on relatively small items. Neither country can afford to truly break their economic relationship. 

There are bound to be politicians and analysts who make the comparison to the Cold War. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping has said it. In talks with leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the Chinese president said that “The Asia-Pacific region cannot and should not relapse into the confrontation and division of the cold war era.” However, this doesn’t mean that the two scenarios are entirely alike.

The Cold War made nuclear war highly salient and seemingly imminent, with nuclear bomb tests in schools and constant broadcasts about potential conflict on the news. It is unlikely that the U.S.-China relationship will elevate to that kind of explosive danger. Neither country has a domestic drive for war. The most likely outcome for the foreseeable future is both countries pushing their political ideology to the rest of the world. Smaller global players will choose their camp–the U.S. democratic system or China’s more autocratic one—for political and cultural reasons. The tensions may simmer, but there is little threat of all-out war. 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.