The U.S.-China Rivalry as Seen in the Cold War’s Rear-View Mirror

As the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and tensions grow, references have increasingly been drawn between it and the other great geostrategic contest of the post-war era—the Cold War. While it might still be premature to speak of the current U.S.-Chinese rivalry and the half-century spanning Cold War in the same breath, it is not hard to see why the present situation is so evocative of its epoch-defining predecessor. The past is, of course, no crystal ball to the future, but a close study of history nonetheless cultivates a sense of perspective one can use to interpret the present and anticipate the possibilities of what is to come. The Cold War therefore serves as a rear-view mirror of sorts, helping to contextualise current developments while informing the decisions to be made. 

A Simple but Complex Competition

The Cold War (

The Cold War (

Traditionally, the grand narrative of the Cold War has depicted the conflict in binary terms, as a hegemonic struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, the only superpowers of the day, diametrically opposed to each other in terms of their ideology and worldview. This conceptualisation was true to a certain extent. The Cold War international order was a binary structure, and the lines drawn between its two main polarities were clear and simple to understand. All the other states could choose to align with one side or the other, and those that chose to remain neutral had to formulate policy with this bipolar framework in mind. Yet, while there is no doubt that the U.S.-Soviet rivalry was the pivot upon which a large part of the conflict revolved, there was significant diversity in how the Cold War unfolded in various parts of the world.

In Southeast Asia for example, the Cold War often became intertwined with nationalism and decolonisation, with local agendas reorganising themselves along Cold War battle-lines, as in Cambodia where the communist movement was in reality a collection of various nationalist and revolutionary cliques. As a result, in spite of its binary structure, both sides of the Cold War international order were far from homogeneous, and in many cases were more loosely bound together than it might have otherwise seemed on the surface. At the same time, the stalemate in Europe created an impetus for the superpowers to actively seek out opportunities elsewhere in a bid to outmanoeuvre each other strategically. The powers sought local allies in the far reaches of the globe, resulting in numerous proxy wars fought in hitherto unknown places.

Cultures of the the Global Cold War (McGill University)

Cultures of the the Global Cold War (McGill University)

The overarching bipolar framework of the Cold War therefore amplified existing domestic fissures, serving as the external tinder to these already existing flames. But to think of this relationship as one-directional would be to over-simplify the complex dynamics at play. As historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, local actors did not just meekly acquiesce to superpower influence and pressure.[1] Displaying great political savvy, many local leaders soon learned that the geopolitical realities the Cold War created could also be navigated and exploited. The relative clarity and simplicity of the Cold War’s binary international order meant that it was possible to play one superpower against the other. Local leaders did this by threatening to switch sides, or by playing up the fears, whether imagined or otherwise, of how a particular superpower’s hegemonic ambitions might be hurt by the collapse of their own authority. Chiang Kai-Shek, for example, was able to secure for Taiwan a mutual defence-treaty to which the U.S. had initially been unwilling to commit by taking advantage of concerns that his regime was on the verge of collapse following the Chinese shelling of the island of Quemoy in 1954.

To paraphrase Gaddis, often the tail ended up wagging the dog, dragging the superpowers into complicated local conflicts they would have otherwise avoided. The U.S. thus trapped itself in the quagmire of Vietnam to prop up an unpopular government while later the Soviet Union would itself become entangled in Afghanistan. This does not mean that profiteering from the Cold War was an easy or straightforward task. Rather, it was one fraught with risks, with potentially disastrous consequences for even the slightest margins of error as Cambodian Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk would painfully discover. His miscalculated attempt to balance U.S. influence with China ended up destabilising the country, creating the conditions that would lead to the overthrow of his government and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Shades of the Past

While it does not necessarily guarantee local instability, the Cold War shows that a bipolar geopolitical environment may be inherently conducive to it. It generates both the impetus to act and the opportunities to act upon for domestic and international actors, a situation that encourages the challenging of the status quo. With the present U.S.-China rivalry having the potential to recreate a bipolar environment similar to that characterised by the Cold War, there is a possibility that many previously dormant local tensions will return to the fore, particularly in countries where the central authority of the government is fragile or virtually non-existent. At the same time, revisionist forces can take advantage of the growing instability to further their interests.

It is worth mentioning that while the Cold War was cold in Europe, where the Soviet Union faced off against the U.S. and NATO in an uneasy stalemate, the historian Paul Chamberlin’s The Cold War’s Killing Fields clearly shows that in other parts of the world, the Cold War was hotly contested with devastating results. If anything, this highlights the real potential for violence in any great power contest, a fact that has precedence in history. While the structural characteristics that underpin the current international order, manifested in the set of institutions, norms, and practices that now generally prevail reduce the likelihood of all-out war, they do not preclude it entirely. The new Cold War will more likely resemble a long peace fraught with simmering tension, but one nonetheless punctuated by brief (in relative terms) but intense conflicts of a limited nature in places where those tensions inevitably boil over.

Also, China replacing the former-Soviet Union as one of the major polarities in this new international order inevitably shifts the centre of attention to Asia, a development foreshadowed by the Obama administration’s 2011 declaration announcing America’s strategic Pivot to Asia. This does not necessarily mean Asia will become the stage for direct military confrontation between the two contesting powers. On the contrary, if the old Cold War is anything to go by, then Asia will be where the uneasy stalemate settles. This is not to say that both the U.S. and China will not be preparing for war. China is clearly developing its conventional military capabilities in a bid to close the gap with the U.S. However, should rationality prevail, the cost of a direct confrontation between the two will be too high, especially given the bleak scenario presented in the event that nuclear deterrence fails. These capabilities will instead be used to project power across the globe, securing  interests further afield in places where the risks of escalation are lower. 

An Imperfect Reflection

Will the U.S.-China rivalry replicate events of the Cold War? The above historical precedents suggest there are similarities in terms of the power dynamics. Yet, there are fundamental differences that also need to be acknowledged. First, the contemporary iteration of the bipolar international order is not the same as the one prevalent during the Cold War. Whereas Cold War bipolarity was strictly binary in nature, the current U.S.-China rivalry is a more complicated beast. While the U.S. and China remain by far the brightest stars amongst the current international order’s constellation of states, they are not the only brightly shining stars. Alternatives to U.S. or Chinese polarity exist, even if these are lesser regional polarities. Russia is reasserting itself in its own backyard, while Japan and India are likewise looking to become more influential regional players. Even the U.S.-China dichotomy is not an equal one, with China’s ambitions still being largely regional in outlook. The new Cold War’s international order is therefore not a true bipolarity, and can in some ways be seen as an unbalanced multipolarity with the U.S. holding the position of eminence.

At the same time, the shift of attention to Asia highlights another fundamental difference. Unlike in Cold War Western Europe, where the U.S. was formally bonded by its alliance commitments to defend against Soviet encroachment, there are fewer incentives for the U.S. to fully commit to Asia. Despite the treaty obligations America has toward a number of regional states such as the Philippines and South Korea, these are all bilateral in nature. There is no collective arrangement to incentivise greater American involvement. The lack of homogeneity among Asian states is a complicating factor, meaning the multilateral ties between them will always be looser in a relative sense and more prone to division. For the U.S. to anchor any meaningful attempt to contain further Chinese expansion requires the unlikely but not impossible condition of securing the active cooperation of most, if not all of the region’s major players. While the renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command reaffirms America’s continued involvement in the region, the reality is that it does not have infinite means at its disposal and its interests are constantly in competition with those of other theatres around the globe.

China has its own problems. While Beijing’s narrative of an ascendant China is an attractive one, and one it would like to propagate, it must be properly contextualised. China’s rise is a geopolitical fact, and it remains on an upward trajectory. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was largely restrained by ideological dogma from integrating into the global economy, China’s more flexible approach has seen it become an irreplaceable node of the international system. This has added to China’s allure as a strategic partner. Yet, China’s relative inexperience in managing international relations has led to miscalculations in its dealings overseas.

China’s lack of sensitivity in dealing with the recipient countries of its Belt and Road Initiative has resulted in much unhappiness, hampering efforts to extend Chinese influence beyond its borders. In addition, China’s own version of a regional manifest destiny has led it to exert power where diplomacy might have otherwise been more prudent, unnecessarily generating mistrust and hostility where amity should have been preferred. As a result, it has few clear friends in its own backyard, with Asian governments increasingly wary of Chinese influence. At the same time, China’s resources are vast but not unlimited, and continual growth is required if it is to maintain its current trajectory. This can only be achieved through greater cooperation, not confrontation, with the outside world. These faults can of course be rectified, but it requires a certain degree of introspection that is at the moment not forthcoming.

President Xi Jinping with other delegates and guests in a group photo at the opening session of the Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation in Beijing (Xu JingXing/China Daily)

President Xi Jinping with other delegates and guests in a group photo at the opening session of the Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation in Beijing (Xu JingXing/China Daily)

The U.S.-China rivalry is also quite different from the Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. While U.S.-China relations are presently infused with deep strategic mistrust, both countries are simultaneously  inter-dependent. The Cold War saw an international order divided between competing systems, but today the U.S. and China are essentially plugged into the same mutually benefiting economic system. The upsurge in globalisation that followed the end of the Cold War has made global markets more interconnected, and despite whatever negative feelings the U.S. and China share, they remain  each other's main trading partners. Given how intricately linked U.S.-China relations are, both countries have more to lose than to gain from a decoupling of their economies. While the U.S. and China are not natural partners, conflict between them is not inevitable. While strategic competition will continue, and might well intensify in the coming years, their confrontation will unlikely ever be total.

What this means is that the battle lines of the new Cold War will be less clear. States will have more opportunities to hedge their interests and to balance the different polarities against each other. Allegiances will be fluid, guided more by realpolitik than anything else. This is also due to another fundamental difference with the Cold War. Unlike then, U.S.-China rivalry now is driven less by ideology than by national interest. Acknowledging the historian Geir Lundestad’s caution against overstating the role of ideology in the Cold War, ideology nonetheless served to shape the battle lines then, with both superpowers seeking out partners according to who was at least opposed to their ideological antithesis, even if this did not necessarily mean alignment to their own ideological beliefs.[2] Likewise, potential allies and partners now will not view their patrons with the same sense of camaraderie such as the likes of China and North Korea did with the Soviet Union in the early phases of the Cold War. The old adage is that politics makes strange bedfellows but perhaps that will be even more so in this new and dynamic geopolitical environment.

The United Nations has also survived its tenuous birth to become a moderating presence in world affairs. While criticisms over the UN’s effectiveness remain, its very existence ensures that any destructive international adventurism will be tempered by the prospect of collective censure, lending greater stability to an inherently anarchic system. It is for this reason that legitimate cause, or illusory claims to it, becomes paramount in any international action. While Russian hybrid warfare has been lauded for its effectiveness as a military doctrine in Ukraine, one of the main reasons for Russia’s more indirect approach is the desire to avoid international reprisal. Whether Russia would have otherwise opted to use a direct approach is a matter open for debate. No revisionist power can afford to take unilateral action without the possibility of an international response in mind. The U.S.-China rivalry will therefore lead to greater instability, but one that is nonetheless regulated by an established set of rules and norms.

Looking into the Rear View Mirror

It might be a statement of the obvious, but despite all the supposed commonalities, this new Cold War will not be a direct replay of the old, and must be interpreted in its own context. It is a matter of fact that today’s geopolitical situation is not the same as it was during the Cold War. Trying to draw comparisons between the current U.S.-China rivalry and the past is thus ultimately an academic exercise. In the wake of the Cold War, borders were redrawn, governments toppled and populations displaced. In countries where the conflict was hot, whole generations suffered. And in some, such as in Cambodia, the societal wounds were so deep that the scars still remain today. Unfortunately, many of these countries were the smaller players on the global stage—grass caught under two fighting elephants. While there are ways in which the lesser powers can game the situation, the margins for failure are smaller and the resulting fallout more calamitous.

President Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 8, 2017, at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Evan Vucci/AP)

But even in countries where the conflict was cold, the Cold War left its indelible mark as both government and society mobilised to meet what was perceived as an amorphous threat. In some countries, a national paranoia took root. The enemy could be seen everywhere and anywhere, and even the U.S. was not spared this phenomenon, perhaps most infamously manifested in McCarthyism. The result was that societies would be irrevocably changed by their respective Cold War experiences. All these will likely be in varying degrees true for the new Cold War. The past gives us an idea of what might lie ahead, but such portents are only speculative at best. Just like in driving, staring too long in the rear-view mirror of history might cause one to miss what is right ahead. If the new Cold War is anything like the old, then the only thing that we can be sure of is that the world will not be the same after it.

Ian Li is a Research Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.

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Header Image: Flags of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (Getty)


[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Allen Lane, London, 2005.

[2] Geir Lundestad, ‘How (Not) to Study the Origins of the Cold War’, in Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, ed. Odd Arne Westad, Routledge, London & New York, 2013.