Commentary / World

America and China are entering the dark forest

by Niall Ferguson

Bloomberg

“We are in the foothills of a Cold War.” Those were the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger when I interviewed him at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Beijing last November.

The observation in itself was not wholly startling. It had seemed obvious to me since early last year that a new cold war — between the United States and China — had begun. This insight wasn’t just based on interviews with elder statesmen. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I had picked up the idea from binge-reading Chinese science fiction.

First, the history. What had started out in early 2018 as a trade war over tariffs and intellectual property theft had by the end of the year metamorphosed into a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co. in 5G network telecommunications; an ideological confrontation in response to Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang region and the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; and an escalation of old frictions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, for Kissinger, of all people, to acknowledge that we were in the opening phase of Cold War II was remarkable.

Since his first secret visit to Beijing in 1971, Kissinger has been the master-builder of that policy of U.S.-Chinese engagement which, for 45 years, was a leitmotif of U.S. foreign policy. It fundamentally altered the balance of power at the mid-point of the Cold War, to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. It created the geopolitical conditions for China’s industrial revolution, the biggest and fastest in history. And it led, after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, to that extraordinary financial symbiosis which Moritz Schularick and I christened “Chimerica” in 2007.

The conventional answer to that question is that U.S. President Donald Trump has swung like a wrecking ball into the “liberal international order” and that Cold War II is only one of the adverse consequences of his “America First” strategy.

Yet that view attaches too much importance to the change in U.S. foreign policy since 2016, and not enough to the change in Chinese foreign policy that came four years earlier, when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Future historians will discern that the decline and fall of Chimerica began in the wake of the global financial crisis, as a new Chinese leader drew the conclusion that there was no longer any need to hide the light of China’s ambition under the bushel that Deng Xiaoping had famously recommended.

When Middle America voted for Trump four years ago, it was partly a backlash against the asymmetric payoffs of engagement and its economic corollary, globalization. Not only had the economic benefits of Chimerica gone disproportionately to China, not only had its costs been borne disproportionately by working-class Americans, but now those same Americans saw that their elected leaders in Washington had acted as midwives at the birth of a new strategic superpower — a challenger for global predominance even more formidable, because economically stronger, than the Soviet Union.

It is not only Kissinger who recognizes that the relationship with Beijing has soured. Orville Schell, another long-time believer in engagement, recently conceded that the approach had foundered “because of the CCP’s deep ambivalence about the way engaging in a truly meaningful way might lead to demands for more reform and change and its ultimate demise.”

Conservative critics of engagement, meanwhile, are eager to dance on its grave, urging that China be economically “quarantined,” its role in global supply chains drastically reduced. There is a spring in the step of the more Sinophobic members of the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger and trade adviser Peter Navarro. For the past three and a half years they have been arguing that the single most important thing about Trump's presidency was that he had changed the course of U.S. policy toward China, a shift from engagement to competition spelled out in the 2017 National Security Strategy. The events of 2020 would seem to have vindicated them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done more than intensify Cold War II. It has revealed its existence to those who last year doubted it. The CCP caused this disaster — first by covering up how dangerous the new coronavirus was, then by delaying the measures that might have prevented its worldwide spread.

Yet now China wants to claim the credit for saving the world from the crisis it caused. Liberally exporting cheap and not wholly reliable ventilators, testing kits and face masks, the Chinese government has sought to snatch victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted. The deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department has gone so far as to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the U.S. and retweet an article claiming that an American team had brought the virus with them when they participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan last October.

Just as implausible are Chinese claims that the U.S. is somehow behind the recurrent waves of pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. The current confrontation over the former British colony’s status is unambiguously Made in China. As Pompeo has said, the new National Security Law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last Tuesday effectively “destroys” the territory’s semi-autonomy and tears up the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, which guaranteed that Hong Kong would retain its own legal system for 50 years after its handover to People’s Republic in 1997.

In this context, it is not really surprising that American public sentiment toward China has become markedly more hawkish since 2017, especially among older voters. China is one of few subjects these days about which there is a genuine bipartisan consensus. It is a sign of the times that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign clearly intends to portray their man as more hawkish on China than Trump. (Former national security adviser John Bolton’s new memoir is grist to their mill.) On Hong Kong, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, is every bit as indignant as Pompeo.

I have argued that this new cold war is both inevitable and desirable, not least because it has jolted the U.S. out of complacency and into an earnest effort not to be surpassed by China in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other strategically crucial technologies. Yet there remains, in academia especially, significant resistance to my view that we should stop worrying and learn to love Cold War II.

At a recent forum on World Order after COVID-19, organized by the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a clear majority of speakers warned of the perils of a new cold war.

Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google, argued instead for a “rivalry-partnership” model of “coop-etition,” in which the two nations would at once compete and cooperate in the way that Samsung and Apple have done for years.

Harvard’s Graham Allison, the author of the bestselling "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?", agreed, giving as another example the 11th-century “frenmity” between the Song Emperor of China and the Liao kingdom on China’s northern border. The pandemic, Allison argued, has made “incandescent the impossibility of identifying China clearly as either foe or friend. Rivalry-partnership may sound complicated, but life is complicated.”

“The establishment of a productive and predictable U.S./China relationship,” wrote John Lipsky, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, “is a sine qua non for strengthening the institutions of global governance.” The last Cold War had cast a “shadow of a global holocaust for decades,” observed James Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state. “What can be done to create a context to limit the rivalry and create space for cooperation?”

Elizabeth Economy, my colleague at the Hoover Institution, had an answer: “The United States and China could … partner to address a global challenge,” namely climate change. Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution took a similar line: “Focusing only on great power competition while ignoring the need for cooperation will not actually give the United States an enduring strategic advantage over China.”

All this sounds eminently reasonable, apart from one thing. The CCP isn’t Samsung, much less the Liao kingdom. Rather — as was true in Cold War I, when (especially after 1968) academics tended to be doves rather than hawks — today’s proponents of “rivalry-partnership” are overlooking the possibility that the Chinese aren’t interested in being frenemies. They know full well this is a cold war, because they started it.

To be sure, there are also Chinese scholars who lament the passing of engagement. The economist Yu Yongding recently joined Kevin Gallagher of Boston University to argue for reconciliation between Washington and Beijing. Yet that is no longer the official view in Beijing. When I first began talking publicly about Cold War II at conferences last year, I was surprised that no Chinese delegates contradicted me. In September, I asked one of them — the Chinese head of a major international institution — why that was. “Because I agree with you!” he replied with a smile.

As a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I have seen for myself the ideological turning of the tide under Xi. Academics who study taboo subjects such as the Cultural Revolution find themselves subject to investigations or worse. Those who take a more combative stance toward the West get promoted.

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua, recently argued that Cold War II, unlike Cold War I, will be a purely technological competition, without proxy wars and nuclear brinkmanship. Yao Yang, dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, was equally candid in an interview with the Beijing Cultural Review, published on April 28.

“To a certain degree we already find ourselves in the situation of a New Cold War," he said. “There are two basic reasons for this. The first is the need for Western politicians to play the blame game” about the origins of the pandemic. “The next thing," he added, "is that now Westerners want to make this into a ‘systems’ question, saying that the reason that China could carry out such drastic control measures [in Hubei province] is because China is not a democratic society, and this is where the power and capacity to do this came from.”

This, however, is weak beer compared with the hard stuff regularly served up on Twitter by the pack leader of the “wolf warrior” diplomats, Zhao Lijian. “The Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed by the U.S. Senate is nothing but a piece of scrap paper,” he tweeted on Monday last week in response to the congressional retaliation against China’s new Hong Kong security law. By his standards, this was understatement.

The tone of the official Chinese communique released after Pompeo’s June 17 meeting in Hawaii with Yang Jiechi, the director of the Communist Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs, was vintage Cold War. On the persecution of the Uighurs, for example, it called on "the U.S. side to respect China's counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts, stop applying double standards on counter-terrorism issues, and stop using Xinjiang-related issues as a pretext to interfere in China's internal affairs."

And this old shrillness, so reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era, is not reserved for the U.S. alone. The Chinese government lashes out at any country that has the temerity to criticize it, from Australia — "gum stuck to the bottom of China's shoe" according to the editor of the Party-controlled Global Times — to India to the U.K.

Those who hope to revive engagement, or at least establish frenmity with Beijing, underestimate the influence of Wang Huning, a member since 2017 of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the most powerful body in China, and Xi’s most influential adviser. Back in August 1988, Wang spent six months in the U.S. as a visiting scholar, traveling to more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. His account of that trip, "America against America," (published in 1991) is a critique — in places scathing — of American democracy, capitalism and culture (racial division features prominently in the third chapter).

Yet the book that has done the most to educate me about how China views America and the world today is, as I said, not a political text, but a work of science fiction. "The Dark Forest" was Liu Cixin’s 2008 sequel to the hugely successful "Three-Body Problem." It would be hard to overstate Liu’s influence in contemporary China: He is revered by the Shenzhen and Hangzhou tech companies, and was officially endorsed as one of the faces of 21st-century Chinese creativity by none other than … Wang Huning.

"The Dark Forest," which continues the story of the invasion of Earth by the ruthless and technologically superior Trisolarans, introduces Liu’s three axioms of “cosmic sociology.”

First, “Survival is the primary need of civilization.” Second, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” Third, “chains of suspicion” and the risk of a “technological explosion” in another civilization mean that in space there can only be the law of the jungle. In the words of the book’s hero, Luo Ji:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost … trying to tread without sound … The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people … any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out.

Kissinger is often thought of (in my view, wrongly) as the supreme American exponent of Realpolitik. But this is something much harsher than realism. This is intergalactic Darwinism.

Of course, you may say, it’s just sci-fi. Yes, but "The Dark Forest" gives us an insight into something we think too little about: how Xi’s China thinks. It’s not up to us whether or not we have a cold war with China, if China has already declared cold war on us.

Not only are we already in the foothills of that new cold war; those foothills are also impenetrably covered in a dark forest of China’s devising.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg columnist.

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