Book review: Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition


Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition, edited by Evan S. Medeiros, Georgetown University Press, Washington C, 2023, Paperback, $36, ISBN: 978 1647 1235598.
By Arnold Zeitlin
Against the background of a declining Chinese economy and a growing sulky petulance between China and the United States, editor Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor and former advisor on Asia to President Barack Obama, has assembled an all-star cast of China specialists, from both the United States and China, to plumb the entrails of the relationship and advise an anxious world where it is going.
“This edited volume.” Medeiros explains in his introduction, “seeks to contribute to this debate about the current character and future trajectory of US-China ties.”
The unhappy truth of this and almost all other analyses of Chinese affairs is that nobody outside the information firewall around Zhongnanhai, the headquarters in Beijing of the Chinese Communist Party and government, really knows what the Chinese leadership is up to. Medeiros concedes: “Policymakers, business leaders, scholars and analysts in both countries are struggling both to understand the changing nature of US-China ties….and its future trajectory….”
As an example of how understanding is thwarted, it is still not clear how Xi Jinping, after ascending in 2012 as party secretary-general, was able to overcome other political factions in the politburo’s then seven-member standing committee to become the one-man leader of the one-party totalitarian state.
The Biden administration hasn’t helped understanding. It seems to want two ways to manage the relationship — maintaining the unfriendly tariffs and sanctions of the previous Trump administration while streaming cabinet members across the Pacific to assure the doubtful Chinese the United States seeks a peaceful, fruitful relationship.
The final section of the book is devoted to “the future trajectory” and illustrates the difficulties diviner’s encounter.
For example, David Edelstein, a Georgetown colleague of Medeiros’s, in an essay entitled Time Horizons and the Future of US-China Relations, offers three scenarios for the future — Stability Restored, Hegemonic War or Competitive Coexistence.
Edelstein doesn’t make a choice, but writes: “The current situation, in which both states are focused on the short term seems most likely to continue. The consequence will be continuing competition over immediate stakes with repeated crises, including over Taiwan, each of which has the prospect of erupting into conflict.”
In another concluding essay forecasting the future, Medeiros tops his colleague with four scenarios that he titles US-China Detente, Strained but Stable Relations, Slow Burn Toward Rivalry or Crisis and Confrontation. He also makes no choice, but writes, “The US-China relationship works well when leaders on both sides take the reins…More of this is needed today to prevent US-China ties…from becoming defined…in ways that make coexistence an unwelcome possibility.”
Taking these remarks against the background of Xi Jinping passing up attending the G-20 summit in India and the chance to meet Joe Biden makes it seem both leaders taking up the reins is unlikely.
Long-time China watcher Harry Harding (to whom the book is dedicated) also comes with four scenarios for the future — cooperation, coexistence, competition and confrontation. “Their relationship will primarily be competitive for the foreseeable future….” he concludes.
In his final remarks, Medeiros does something no other writer in this volume does — briefly looking past a time when Xi Jinping, who has assumed a position as ruler for life, may no longer rule, overlooking the possibility . “Looking forward to the next decade, as new US and Chinese policymakers come online,” he writes, “and as the domestic political order in both countries evolves, neithoner US nor Chinese policymakers should be guided hy either their worst fears or their greatest hopes about US-China ties….”i
The rest of the contributors seem to take for granted Xi will continue to rule, overlooking the option he may depart sooner than expected.  Is his position so secure? This is hard to tell. Xi is telling young graduates unable to find jobs to soldier on and take what they can find. His administration offers little hope to Chinese who have paid for apartments that have not been built and it offers little support for private sector businesses looking for credit. The middle class, having tasted the fruits of prosperity, are unlikely to appreciate Xi’s austere long march approach to difficulty. Xi also has committed China to a relationship with a Vladimir Putin-ruled Russia that may be an embarrassing loser. In addition, his assumption of life-time rule blocks an entire generation of younger Communist Party colleagues who will “come online” seeking to obtain power and status and possibly will be happy to see him prematurely gone.
Much of the material in the book must have been assembled before the Chinese economy began to stall. That difficulty is not mentioned in the book, especially in the one essay devoted to economy, written by Arthur R. Kroeber, the founding partner and head of research for a Hong Kong-based financial services firm. In his contribution to divining the “future trajectory”, he writes, “The US-China economic relationship is almost certain to remain an uneasy combination of rivalry and interdependence for many years to come.” He adds: “Short of all-out war, the United States and China are bound to remain deeply interdependent.”
The three Chinese specialists, all academics, focus their essays on strategic competition (“strategic” being a word heavily scattered through all the writing in this volume) and offer a Chinese perspective on background not often found in the English language. In his historical account of how the Chinese leadership views the United States, Wang Jisi, president of Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies (to whom the book is also dedicated), writes “the PRC leadership has every reason to view the United States as the major and increasingly deadly menace to China’s sovereignty.” He then outlines a litany of episodes the Chinese view as interfering with their sovereignty, starting in 1983 with what he calls the Hu Na Incident, when the Reagan administration approved the application for asylum of a teenage tennis player named Hu Na.
Wang’s contribution to the speculation about the future is this: “The two giants are therefore likely to coexist for a long period of time, probably even longer than the forty-plus years of the Cold War,” His colleague, Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, comes to a similar conclusion: “From the Chinese perspective, a common understanding is that Sino-US competition will  be a long-haul venture, sometimes accompanied by fierce confrontation and conflict….”
The reader in other essays the has opportunity to learn about the technology challenges, the military factors and even the espionage realm of the relationship. But anyone seeking where the US-China relationship is headed will not find a definitive answer in this volume. The specialists contributing to this book, like the rest of us ordinary mortals will simply have to wait and see what transpires.