September 10, 2020

China’s central position in a globalized transnational production chain that includes many US allies and the absence of an active struggle for ideological supremacy between Chinese authoritarianism and liberal democracy both mean that we are unlikely to see the rise of globally opposed alliance systems as we did in the Cold War. Especially given China’s continued weakness in military power projection compared to the United States and its global alliance system, without China actively sparking or joining an ideological struggle between authoritarianism and democracy in far-flung sections of the world, we should not see something akin to the global US-USSR Cold War. For the foreseeable future, barring a massive escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the US-China strategic competition will likely continue to take place at sea and in the air, not on land. As Tunsjo argues, domination or total control of the sea is difficult at best, and early, offensive action or sharp escalation in areas with unpopulated reefs and rocks provides little strategic advantage to the aggressor. Therefore, crises over these disputes should be manageable even as they become more frequent, as Tunsjo argues.

But Tunsjo’s geography of 21st Century bipolarity as a struggle at sea may be more political and economic than it is physical. If China starts actively involving itself in bolstering authoritarianism and undermining democracy around the world, then US-led alliance systems on land will begin butting up against China’s authoritarian allies. And, along the same lines, if China moves hard away from economic globalization to replace key elements of the transnational production chain with Chinese, rather than foreign, producers, such an ideological struggle becomes more plausible for China than if Beijing remains dependent on good relations with US allies to fuel its economic growth, as it currently is. So, from an analytic point of view, we should be studying trends in Chinese foreign policy toward regions and civil wars in which liberal political forces are pitted against authoritarian ones, and we should be researching trends in China’s integration with and decoupling from global supply chains. More than any other issue, these two key factors will determine whether we are heading in the direction of two opposing blocs, one led by China and one led by the United States. Without such opposing blocs, we will not have a Cold War but a very different form of great power competition. And if the nature of the US-China competition will be unlike the Cold War, the United States would be ill-advised to adopt policies more suited for a Cold War, such as pressing nations that might otherwise cooperate with the United States in important ways to forego beneficial economic and political relations with China as well. Despite some recent setbacks in America’s reputation around the world, the United States remains more attractive to and more trusted by a wide swathe of the world’s nations than the PRC. The strategic competition with the PRC is real. The point of this monograph is not to deny the existence of that competition, but to remove misperceptions about the nature of the struggle and discourage counterproductive US strategies that might flow from those misperceptions.


*This report is based on a paper presented at the Asan Institute’s Values Diplomacy Conference June 4-5, 2019.;

About the Author: 

Thomas J. Christensen is Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director of the China and the World Program at Columbia University.  He arrived in 2018 from Princeton University where he was William P. Boswell Professor of World Politics of Peace and War, Director of the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, and faculty director of the Masters of Public Policy Program and the Truman Scholars Program.   From 2006-2008 he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs with responsibility for relations with China, Taiwan, and Mongolia. His research and teaching focus on China’s foreign relations, the international relations of East Asia, and international security.  His most recent book, The China Challenge:  Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (W.W. Norton) was an editors’ choice at the New York Times Book Review, a “Book of the Week” on CNN”s Fareed Zakaria GPS, and the Arthur Ross Book Award Silver Medalist for 2016 at the Council on Foreign Relations. Professor Christensen has also taught at Cornell University and MIT. He received his B.A. with honors in History from Haverford College, M.A. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania, and Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University. He has served on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, as co-editor of the International History and Politics series at Princeton University Press, and as a member of the Academic Advisory Committee for the Schwarzman Scholars Program. He is currently the Chair of the Editorial Board of the Nancy B. Tucker and Warren I. Cohen Book Series on the United States in Asia at Columbia University Press.  Professor Christensen is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the Brookings Institution. He was presented with a Distinguished Public Service Award by the United States Department of State.