China: Lessons for Europe from the Cold War

Liberal democracies must learn the lessons of the past by thinking long-term, applying a strong moral code – and avoiding hubris.

Let’s be honest: there is a new cold war between China and the United States. The coronavirus crisis has only heightened the antagonism. There are few, if any, countries in Africa or Latin America where the two superpowers do not loom large as rivals. When Chinese and Indian soldiers clash with brutal hand-to-hand fighting on a disputed frontier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hastens to take the Indians’ side. British MPs have formed a China Research Group – with the word research meaning “opposition research”, as in the European Research Group. The question of whether Huawei is a security threat is being asked almost everywhere.

Every historical analogy is imperfect, but if the essence of a cold war is a worldwide, multi-dimensional, long-term struggle between two superpowers, this is a new cold war. The question for the rest of us is: what we do about it? Do we put our heads in the sand and say: “Please make this go away?” That is roughly the attitude of most Europeans. Or do we recognise the reality and try to shape it towards the best possible outcome? The latter is obviously the right course. With that in mind, here are nine lessons from cold war I for cold war II.

We must think long-term

The first cold war lasted more than 40 years. The People’s Republic of China has huge strengths, including sheer scale, national pride, evolutionary innovation, an entrepreneurial society, and a Leninist party that has systematically learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union so as to avoid the same fate. This will be a long haul.

Combine competition and cooperation

Detente policies were not distinct from the first cold war – they were an intrinsic part of it. Liberal democracies did best when they combined tough, hard-nosed defence and containment with diplomacy and constructive engagement. Our red lines on issues such as the security of Taiwan should be crystal clear, but so should our continued readiness to work with Beijing. The European Union correctly describes China as at once a partner, a competitor, and a “systemic rival”. Given the degree of interdependence between China and the liberal world, as well as global threats such as climate change and covid-19, we’ll need to embrace a twin-track approach.

Focus on China’s internal dynamics

The primary cause of this new cold war is the turn taken by the Chinese communist party leadership under Xi Jinping since 2012: more oppressive at home, more aggressive abroad. We have to understand why the Chinese party-state took this turn away from the more pragmatic, evolutionary strategy – “crossing the river by feeling for the stones” – that for decades enabled the country’s peaceful rise and won China such broad international appeal at the time of the Beijing Olympics. And what forces or circumstances might bring it back to such a path? We need all the expertise we can get on Chinese history, culture, and politics, and on Asia as a whole.

Don’t believe we can engineer their system

One of the recurrent delusions of Western policy in the first cold war was that it could directly and predictably change the other side’s domestic politics. Remember all that behavioural psychology nonsense about strengthening the doves and weakening the hawks? The entirety of our policies will be at best a secondary cause of change in the Chinese system. Avoid behaviouristic hubris.

Always remember that we are addressing a society as well as a state

The more we – rightly – criticise the party-state’s policy in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, the more we need to emphasise that this is not an attack on the Chinese people, with their rich, fascinating culture and history. Every action and statement should be assessed for its impact on Chinese society as well as on the party-state. In the end, it is the Chinese who will change China, not us.

If the essence of a cold war is a worldwide, multi-dimensional, long-term struggle between two superpowers, this is a new cold war.

China is not the Soviet Union

Learning from the first cold war also means understanding how this time is different. Just as the Soviet Union was a mix of Leninist politics and Russian history, so China blends Xi’s Leninism with Chinese culture and tradition. Francis Fukuyama argues that China was “the first world civilisation to create a modern state” and that for centuries “Chinese regimes were centralised, bureaucratic and merit-based”. China’s strengths and weaknesses also flow from an unprecedented combination of Leninism and capitalism. Other historical comparisons are illuminating, such as with the economically modern but socially conflicted pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany, which challenged imperial Britain as Beijing now challenges the imperial US.

If you don’t know what to do, do the right thing

We watch with horror the tragedy of Hong Kong, the totalitarian oppression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the muzzling of brave individual dissidents. The British government has done the right thing in offering a path to full British citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents, even though this will do nothing to prevent the slow strangling of that city’s glorious high-rise synthesis of east and west. The Norwegian Nobel committee was right to award the peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, although it could not save that brave and lucid Chinese patriot from a painful death in prison.

Unity is strength

At the moment, the liberal world is at sixes and sevens over China. Beijing has endless opportunities to divide and rule. A recent official paper laying out Washington’s new “strategic approach” to the other superpower says the first objective of US policy is “to improve the resiliency of our institutions, alliances and partnerships”, but Donald Trump does the opposite. An effective twin-track response to the Chinese challenge requires a strategic unity that is geographically wider than the pre-1989 Western alliance of Western Europe and North America. The EU, the post-Brexit UK, and a new US administration should sit down with representatives of other democracies early next year to chart common ground.

Cold wars are won at home

By far the most important single thing that liberal democracies did to prevail in the first cold war was to make our own societies prosperous, free, open and attractive. The same will be true this time. A former Chinese student of mine has written a fascinating essay about the attitudes of Chinese students who return home after studying at Western universities. His conclusion: the experience of living in the West does not make returning Chinese students, as we might once have hoped, perfect pro-Western liberal democrats. Instead, they become “double dissidents”, highly critical of both systems. It’s not our foreign policy that will ultimately convince them. It’s what we do at home.

Oh, and one last thing. I call this a new cold war because my job as a political writer is to call a spade a spade. That doesn’t mean Western politicians would be well-advised to deploy a phrase with such negative connotations.

Wise leaders don’t say all they know.

Timothy Garton Ash is an ECFR Council Member. This article first appeared in the Guardian.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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