Are the U.S. and China engaged in a ‘Cold War’? It’s a hot debate

November 4, 2021, 11:50 AM UTC

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Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. waded into the U.S.-China debate Tuesday with a New York Times essay deploring the use of the term “Cold War” to describe the increasing frostiness of relations between the world’s two most powerful nations.

The analogy, Nye declared, is “lazy and potentially dangerous” because it underestimates and oversimplifies the realities of the China challenge, while at the same time blinding President Joe Biden and his advisers to effective policy options.

Nye, a Democrat who served as a senior defense official in the Clinton administration, credited Biden for avoiding the Cold War comparison in public remarks. But Nye added a pointed criticism: “[T]he president’s actions suggest that his strategy for dealing with China may indeed suffer from Cold War thinking, which locks our minds into the traditional two-dimensional chess model”—not a good thing, according to Nye, because “competition with China…is a three-dimensional game.”

The gist of Nye’s objection to the Cold War analogy is that the U.S.’s current conflict with China differs fundamentally from its postwar standoff with the Soviet Union. In the earlier rivalry, he writes, “the Soviet Union was a direct military and ideological threat to the United States,” while the two powers had almost no economic or social connections. In contrast, the U.S.-China relationship is deeply interdependent—economically, socially, and geopolitically. Thus the strategy of “containment” and ramping up military might that successfully countered the Soviets isn’t helpful in thinking about how to cope with China.

Economically, China is a far more formidable adversary than was the Soviet Union, whose population was only a few tens of millions larger than the U.S.’s, and whose economy never exceeded more than about 40% of U.S. GDP. China, with a population of 1.4 billion, has four times more people than the U.S. At $15 trillion, China’s economy is roughly 70% as large as the U.S.’s, and many experts expect China to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy early in the next decade (though count me a skeptic on that).

The Times‘ David Sanger pondered the perils of the Cold War metaphor in an analysis two weeks ago. “Governments that plunge into a Cold War mind-set can exaggerate every conflict, convinced that they are part of a larger struggle,” Sanger worried. “They can miss opportunities for cooperation, as the United States and China did in battling COVID-19, and may yet on climate.”

And yet Sanger’s analysis opens by acknowledging that Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and a widely respected China expert, has readily embraced the term. Indeed, Rudd recently told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that a Cold War between Beijing and Washington is “probable and not just possible.”

Rudd has plenty of company.

Henry Kissinger—the man who orchestrated Richard Nixon’s secret 1971 pilgrimage to meet Mao Zedong—says the U.S. and China are in the “foothills of a Cold War.” Nye’s Harvard colleague Graham Allison, popularizer of the idea of the “Thucydides Trap,” regularly cites parallels between the U.S.-China rivalry and the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Former U.S. admiral James Stavridis and Time contributing editor Elliot Ackerman argue U.S.-China tensions will escalate into a “full-blown, Cold War-like status in the near future“—and have written a best-selling novel envisioning how the two nations will “sleepwalk” into a shooting war.

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has two must-read essays on the topic. The first is by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, who declares that “Cold War II is already here,” adding that “when one compares the two cold wars, it becomes apparent that the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is more likely to lead to a shooting war than the U.S.-Soviet rivalry was.” (Mearsheimer, a relentless realist, has been arguing that Cold War II between the U.S. and China is “inevitable” since his opus The Tragedy of Great Power Politics was published two decades ago.)

The second, by Johns Hopkins University’s Hal Brands and Yale military historian John Lewis Gaddis, concedes the many differences between the U.S.-China conflict and Soviet-American clash. But it explicitly endorses the utility of the term. What’s going on between the U.S. and China now is “a cold war,” they argue, even if it’s not “the Cold War.”

“It’s no longer debatable that the United States and China, tacit allies during the last half of the last Cold War, are entering their own new cold war,” they write. Moreover, say Brands and Gaddis, careful study of the Soviet-American conflict “might expand experience and enhance resilience in a Sino-American rivalry whose future, hot or cold, remains unclear.”

More Eastworld news below.

Clay Chandler

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at

Eastworld news


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Zoom link?

Over the weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for not attending the global COP26 summit on climate change, saying China is vacating the potential leadership role it could take on reducing global emissions. Instead of attending the summit, Xi submitted a written statement, raising questions about China’s commitment to its 2060 climate pledge. On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman defended Xi’s absence at the summit, saying conference organizers did not provide China with an option to participate via video. Financial Times

Invest India

India’s staggering economic growth trajectory has slowed amid the pandemic, but investors are continuing to pour money into Indian companies and startups. Between 2020 and 2021, India attracted a record $81 billion in foreign direct investment. The flood of money into India is largely a byproduct of a tightening Chinese market, where China’s sweeping tech crackdowns have caused investors to flee. But navigating India’s complex rules and regulations makes investing in India less than a guaranteed bet, argues Vasuki Shastry, an associate Asia fellow at Chatham House, in an opinion piece for Fortune.

Softbank plays hardball

Billionaire investor Masayoshi Son has lost seven managing partners at his startup backer Vision Fund since March due to Son's "eccentric approach to compensation" that left partners unsure of how much of the Vision Fund's profits they'd pocket. Son’s inability to retain the executives reflects the challenges of running a venture capital fund—where executives expect handsome bonuses—within Softbank’s more traditional Japanese corporate environment. Unlike in the U.S., corporate staffers in Japan generally earn modest incomes. Bloomberg

Markets and movers

Clover Biopharma – The Chinese vaccine maker will debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Friday as it prepares to launch a protein-based COVID-19 vaccine similar to the U.S.'s Novavax. Clover plans to distribute tens of millions of doses through COVAX, a global vaccine sharing initiative, once Clover’s vaccine is approved by the World Health Organization.

Bytedance – Zhang Yiming, co-founder of TikTok-owner Bytedance, stepped down from his position as chairman and left the company’s board after quitting as CEO earlier this year. Zhang’s departure is the latest in a string of Chinese tech founders to step away from day-to-day operations amid China’s sweeping antitrust crackdown on its tech industry.  

Toyota – The Japanese carmaker raised its full-year net profit forecast through March 2022 to $21.8 billion, up from the $20.1 billion it predicted in May. Toyota expects its chip shortage and supply chain issues to ease in the fourth quarter

Chinese coal – China’s daily coal output reached 11.67 million tons on Nov. 2, near a record high for the year as China attempts to pull itself out of an energy crisis that caused blackouts in parts of the country. Thermal coal prices in China have fallen by 50% from the start of this month until now as coal supply pressures have eased.

Bharat Biotech – The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that it approved Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, a decision that will allow Bharat Biotech to begin shipping its vaccines around the world. Bharat Biotech’s vaccine is the first homegrown COVID-19 jab to get approved by the WHO.

Kakaopay – The Korean mobile payments firm raised $1.3 billion in its debut in Seoul on Wednesday, giving Kakaopay a valuation of more than $21 billion. Kakaopay, backed by Chinese fintech giant Ant Group, is a spin-off of parent company KakaoTalk, a near-ubiquitous social messaging app in South Korea.

Final figure


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised the world at the COP26 summit on climate change on Monday with an announcement that India will become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2070. Modi also pledged to transition to 50% renewable energy by the end of this decade, an ambitious challenge that, if achieved, could kick-start the end of India’s addiction to coal.

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