We are always trying to make sense of the present by reaching into the past. Not so long ago fashionable commentary on the rivalry between the US and China summoned up a sage of ancient Greece. The Athenian historian Thucydides predicted inevitable conflict between an established hegemon and rising power. Now, the favoured parallel for the Sino-American confrontation is the west’s fight against Soviet communism. Neat as it may seem, that analogy is more confusing than illuminating.
The cold war drum is being beaten most loudly by Donald Trump’s US administration. It is easy to see why. Mr Trump thinks his belligerent stance towards Beijing is worth votes in November’s presidential election. Not so long ago he was boasting about striking a trade deal with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Now, as it condemns Beijing on every front, the Trump White House wants to rally US allies to the cause. How better to do so than to draw a comparison with the west’s resolve to defeat Soviet communism. The analogy is as careless of history as it is heedless of present geopolitics.
The US administration’s matchless ignorance was on display a week ago in a speech by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, intended to set the terms for a united western stand against Beijing. Speaking ominously of “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”, Mr Pompeo prefaced next year’s 50th anniversary of then president Richard Nixon’s famous “opening” to China.
Perhaps imagining himself as the George Kennan of our times, Mr Pompeo declared that “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist party is the mission of our time”. Kennan, of course, was the US diplomat who set the framework for America’s cold war policy of Soviet “containment”. It was obvious from Mr Pompeo’s speech that he had read neither Kennan’s famous “long telegram” from Moscow nor glanced at the once-secret policy papers setting out the purpose of Nixon’s outreach to Beijing in 1971.
Mr Pompeo’s premise was that Nixon’s goal had been to bring Mao’s China into the western democratic fold. On that basis, he said, it was time for everyone to admit that the policy of “opening” had failed.
The record of the negotiations between Nixon’s envoy Henry Kissinger and the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai tell a different story. Kissinger was an arch realist, scornful of allowing values to get in the way of hard-headed diplomacy. He did nothing to press the cause of freedom. His purpose, plain and simple, was to isolate Moscow.
The parallel drawn between the ambitions of Mr Xi’s China and that of the former Soviet Union is equally misleading. The cold war was a struggle between competing systems. Today’s Sino-American rivalry is a contest between states.
The Chinese regime has grand ambitions. It wants to push the US out of the western Pacific and establish its own hegemony in east Asia. It is a fair assessment that the long-term goal is to replace the US as the world’s most powerful nation. But, to borrow from Kennan’s characterisation of Soviet aims, Beijing is not seeking the defeat of capitalism across the world.
Moscow presented the world with an alternative way of ordering society. It had fellow travellers, allies and agents in established parties across the world. This was a contest that only one side could survive. Beijing thinks in terms of “spheres of influence”. Mr Xi is not anticipating what Mr Pompeo calls the “global hegemony of Chinese communism”.
This is not to deny the obvious clash of ideologies. On that score, however, Mr Pompeo’s rallying cry for freedom is scarcely helped by Mr Trump’s frequent public applause for unpleasant autocratic regimes, including that of Mr Xi. By the account of his former national security adviser John Bolton, the president offered personal backing to Mr Xi for the brutal crackdown against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province.
The Communist party’s repression at home is indeed matched by an increasingly aggressive foreign policy: deploying military might in the South China Sea, economic sanctions against governments that dare to criticise it, and an ugly mix of coercion and threats in emerging nations. But its posture is that of the 19th-century great power rather than the 20th-century Soviet Union. It knows, too, that its claims have to be managed in the context of economic interdependence with the west. The Soviets thought they could crush capitalism. China depends on it.
Certainly America and its allies should speak out about human rights abuses and draw solid boundaries against aggressive behaviour by the Chinese — and be prepared to defend its values and interests in setting the framework for its relationship.
Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo, however, are seemingly ignorant of the most important piece of advice in Kennan’s dispatch from Moscow. As vital as it was that the west resisted any Soviet advance, the answer was not provocation or war but to ensure “the health and vigour of our own society”.
Kennan’s last sentence might have been written specifically for Mr Trump: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”