A New Cold War? The Future of U.S.-China Relations

Editor’s Note: In a 

video interview

with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Cheng Li talks about his view on U.S.-China relations and how the leaders on both sides should move the relationship forward after a fierce presidential campaign in the United States and the once-a-decade leadership transition in China.

Wilson Center: Is it useful to use the “Cold War” metaphor when discussing the possibility of a negative turn for China-U.S. relations?

Cheng LI: The idea of the Cold War is a conception. It depends on how you look at that, how much you believe that. Certainly the Cold War was real during the 1960s, 70s, etc. But now it’s very problematic because by definition the Cold War is confrontation of two blocks on ideological and military fronts. You can say on the military front, there is stlll some tension between countries like China and the United States. But ideologically I don’t see that China has that ideology [of] deliberately trying to challenge the United States. But most importantly, during the Cold War, there’s no global economy. The Soviet block was not part of the global economy. But now we see a really globalized economy. China is part of that. And if [in] the United States the economy is not doing well, China also suffers. And vice versa. So this tells us we’re really in a new era, in a new world.

Now Einstein once said the release of the atomic bomb has changed everything except the way of thinking. We can borrow that: the economic globalization has changed everything except the way of thinking. If you’re still preoccupied [by] the old idea of the Cold War, or 19th century world view, that two major powers can only be conflicting, then you will buy that argument. But I personally think it’s completely irrelevant in today’s world. The danger is some of our policy makers, whether in China, Untied States, or elsewhere, still hold that view.