How to Avoid a U.S.-China Cold War
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How to Avoid a U.S.-China Cold War


Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard sealed a bilateral defense deal in November 2011, under which 2500 U.S. marines will be stationed in Australia, Obama announced a new strategic defense guidance in January 2012. The latter document claims that China’s rise has important implications on U.S. economic and strategic interests, and noted that countries such as China and Iran continue to pursue asymmetric means of countering U.S. power projection capabilities. Many have taken these developments to mean that competition between the United States and China amounts to a new 'Cold War.'

How do the characteristics of Sino–U.S. relations affect trends in their bilateral ties? Where will strategic competition between China and the United States lead? The U.S. pivot towards the Asia-Pacific represents a strategic readjustment, and competition between China and the United States will consequently grow accordingly. This, however, does not meet the criteria for a Cold War-style scanerio. 

Instead, the relationship between the United States and China can best be characterized as “superficial friends,” which is epitomized by a character–strategy duality. The concept of superficial friendship implies a state of bilateral relations as well as a strategy. The state to which superficial friendship refers is one where neither of the two parties regards the other as a strategic partner, but where both claim a strategic partnership. For example, China and the United States see one another as trade partners, yet in the face of a trade imbalance, the United States presses China to appreciate the Renminbi solely to enhance U.S. economic interests like employment, thus exacerbating China’s difficulties vis-a`-vis exports.

A superficial friendship strategy refers to two parties exaggerating the nature of their bilateral friendship and paying lip service to the improvement of relations in order to expand the expected value of future cooperation and to temporarily improve bilateral relations. As long as the United States and China bolster strategic trust they can prevent their bilateral relationship from slipping into a Cold War scenario. The escalating frequency of summit meetings between China and the United States is a classic example of this strategy. Since January 2009, when Obama took office, to the November 2011 APEC meeting in Hawaii, Hu Jintao and Obama met on a total nine occasions in 22 months—on average once every 10 weeks. That the leaders in both China and the United States meet so frequently without expecting any substantive outcome hence implies the use of a superficial friendship strategy.

As, at least for the meantime, China and the United States have no desire to abandon their strategy of superficial friendship, thus the conditions necessary for a Cold War are not present. For example, although Obama supports a new defense strategy aimed at containing China, he purposely avoided mentioning China at the time he announced this new policy at the Pentagon. Moreover, four days after the announcement, Obama sent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to China to seek Beijing’s support on U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not long after that, however, the U.S. government publicly attributed the maritime disputes over the South China Sea to China’s policy of establishing Sansha City, and supported Japan on the disputes between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. Then, in September, Hilary Clinton visited China and suggested that there are many areas for China and the U.S. to cooperate. As long as this superficial friendship strategy continues, Sino–U.S. relations will hence not teeter towards a Cold War. 

That being said, as the comprehensive power of China and the United States continues towards parity, the number of conflicts of interest between the two states will continue to intensify, and that there will be an increasing trend wherein the two compete more often than they cooperate. Obama’s strategy of pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific Region is a product of the relative decline in U.S. power and of the increased pace of China’s rise. Furthermore, as its comprehensive national power decreases, United States will as a matter of necessity narrow its strategy, and apply its strategic resources to the globe’s most vital strategic areas. China’s rise has gradually made the Asia-Pacific a global power-center. By narrowing the scope of its strategy, the United States can hope to enhance its domination in the Western Pacific.

It follows that a Cold War between China and the United States will not ensue before they abandon their mutual strategy of superficial friendship. Even if both sides eventually follow this path it will not necessarily escalate into such a scanerio because, after a period of prolonged deadlock, it will remain possible that one party will proactively readopt a strategy of superficial friendship to improve relations.

Yan Xuetong is Professor of International Relations and Director of Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University. Qi Haixia is Lecturer at Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University. They are the co-authors of Football Game Rather Than Boxing Match: China–US Intensifying Rivalry Does not Amount to Cold War.

April 19, 2013 at 00:39

There was a good study done by Pacific Forum CSIS last year on this issue. See 

Ayush D
December 19, 2012 at 01:05

Let's not forget that should we follow China's "Lost nation" theory, then Greece has claim over much of the Middle East and Central Asia, while England can demand its old colonies back, irrespective of treaties and what not. I believe the islands in the South China Sea should be under the governance of the UN. That is, no country should have stake over them. Of course, that's a highly idealistic solution. 

Sean Ramos
November 16, 2012 at 16:49

The true interests of the countries are way closer than we usually imagine. Problems are two fold otherwise. Number one is historical legacies of imperialism, compounded by the real needs to maintain a status quo, and on this problem the US does a decent job. But the other related problem has to do with imperial fantasies of those running the world economy, and these create tensions about who gets the proceeds of an economy which is suppressed. Solution is the US government put Americans back to work FDR style and quicken transfer of technology to aid China’s and the world’s development.

October 24, 2012 at 03:36

Why are these states craving for superiority? All news about China and US are all war-related terms.

October 1, 2012 at 18:00

Why would anyone be against a Sino-US Cold War? Only good can come from that… especially if you follow realism

September 27, 2012 at 16:05

Here here!

September 27, 2012 at 14:15

My feeling is that we are currently living in the 21st Century,
When South Korea made claims over Dokdo it was at the beginning of thier recent nations history. In fact the Korea that existed previously did not exist at the time to have claims.
I believe that when a Nation was created, e.g. CCP in 1947, South Korea,  Japan, etc. is when its claims should be considered for the territory that it holds.
Not claiming that the CCP should have claims for territory controlled under the Ming Dynasty, though considering that if we do base territorial claims based on a enthic groups previous control of territoy than we have problems such as the Manchus and Korean will take part of China, Vietnam would have claims over territory, etc.
It becomes problematic especially considering that many nations did not exist in past times and so "what?" should thier territory be given to others? Should Mongolia have claims over what is now China?
What period do we use as justification? Since Ancient times? If that is solely the reason for claimants than, maybe my nation could make claims based on its claim of territory controlled since "Recent times". Chinese claims are indefensible,but hey you and I both understand that China doesn't need or want the truth to get in the way of a good yarn.
If nations accept Chinas claims and give up control of their territorial waters and land to China then its a win for China and if they don't then the CCP can direct the anger of its nations against a scapegoat. Either way, its a win/win situation.

gary lee
September 27, 2012 at 12:46

what's the goal then?even if you beat China, what can you get?   when China gets more affluent, it will become a bigger market for U.S companies. it actually will benefit U.S more instead of having a cold war with China.

September 27, 2012 at 11:36

LOL. Boy! you are still talking about "friendship" as a cultural thing regarding  to china's relation to other countries. Just look at the all-weathered "friends" of China, NKorea, Pakistan, Sudan,….Wow, very impressive, huh?

Matthew Hall
September 27, 2012 at 00:41

But why would the US want to avoid another Cold War? It won the last one so completely it ushered in the current wave of globalization that is transforming our lives every day. I say, bring on the Cold War.

September 27, 2012 at 00:24

Probably more accurate to call the u.s and prc, "friendly competitors", for starters there is alot of respect and affection for chinese people in the u.s, granted less so for china itself. And on economic and a cultural/global influence level there is a degree of resentment and hostility.
Instead of a cold war we are likely to have lukewarm war, where neither party quite views the other as an outright enemy, but is never relaxed enough to view each other as friends. Barring china invading anything this won't change, a few limited naval spats are as bad as it's gonna get, u.s and china are just too similiar in their ideals to become true enemies.

talking points
September 26, 2012 at 23:41

what about it, John X?
Koreans occupied a Japanese island and took posession of a rock between it and China. is that aggressive? Australia claims half of south pole and pushes it sea boundry to 5 miles of other country's shore, is that peaceful?

talking points
September 26, 2012 at 23:37

I am impressed by the authors. as for superficial friendship, I want to tell "Leonard R"  that in China, it almost always say the word "friendship" when refering to foreign relations. it is a cutrual thing. From China's mind, if two country want to have a relationship, it should have a goal to enhance friendship. unlike US, it just doesn't care. It doesn't even utter the word for British. it uses word Ally more often.
This is a primary example for culture difficulties China faces in the international areana. it should talk about interests more, not friendship. because in the international arena, friendship means nothing to westen countries.

September 26, 2012 at 23:07

It is a deadly embrace between two partners, each with fangs ready to sink into the other's neck. Hopefully, as they tango, each partner does not step on the other's toes.  It is not a "friendship",but a deadly embrace.

September 26, 2012 at 21:55

What a load of hot air.  Basically this piece is saying nothing 
'Superficial friend' is about the daftest IR term anyone has ever tried to introduce 

Leonard R.
September 26, 2012 at 09:47

It took two Chinese university professors to come up with this thesis? 
Well, I respectfully submit their thesis is sheer dribble. I suggest they support their position by finding a quote – anywhere – of a senior US official who refers to China as a "friend". Nobody has done that in years to my knowledge. But if they can find one quote from a person in authority recently, I'll defer to these twin spires of academe. But right now, I think those days are finished. And so is the professor's 'superficial friendship' analogy. 
According to the two Chinese professors, the US and the PRC are: 
"…paying lip service to the improvement of relations in order to expand the expected value of future cooperation and to temporarily improve bilateral relations."
That may be true. But that is something quite different from a "superficial" friendship. Isn't it? 

September 26, 2012 at 09:13

Mischief Reef (1994)
That pretty much sums it up for me. The rest is just hoopla and fairy dust.
China proved itself the aggressor in most of the cases over the last 18 years and the fact that the USA is now waking up to that is simply a case of about time, idiots.

September 26, 2012 at 00:57

  Quite persuasive, in that US-PRC relations are better characterized as superficial friendship (with some interests closely aligned, others merely partially aligned, and others still at loggerheads)–than as some sort of new "Cold War," which is a hyperbolic take on the current situation. However, the potential is always there for the relations to slide down into a costly and dangerous cold war if either country's leadership takes a markedly hawkish turn (such as under the helm of a hawk like John Bolton in a prospective Romney Administration, or under a Bo Xilai-type PRC leader).

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