The US, China, and the Cold War analogy


Of all the historical precedents that have been invoked in recent years to make sense of US–China relations, which is the most suggestive? This article argues that the Cold War analogy, which frames the US–Soviet strategic rivalry between 1947 and 1989 as a power-cum-ideological struggle, fits the bill best. Yet because analogical reasoning tends to be a hazardous intellectual enterprise, it is necessary to “test” the inferences derived from the Cold War 1.0 analogy against the current trajectory of US–China relations. This article offers some suggestions on how to go about performing such tests.

“One must always think about historical precedents—we are all shaped by the experiences through which we have lived”

—Dean Rusk, US secretary of state, 1961–1969Footnote 1


Of all the historical precedents that have been invoked in recent years to make sense of US–China relations, which is the most suggestive? This article argues that the Cold War analogy, which frames the US–Soviet strategic rivalry between 1947 and 1989 as a power-cum-ideological struggle, fits the bill best. More specifically, the Cold War analogy highlights three “big picture” parallels: the bipolar structure of the current (Asian) international system, ideological contestation, and the condition of mutual deterrence created by the possession of nuclear weapons by two superpowers. The first two parallels suggest that US–China strategic rivalry will be the order of the day for decades to come, while the third suggests that there will be constraints on how violent the rivalry will be. A second, and perhaps more provocative analogy, is the “peaceful overtake” analogy of America and Great Britain in the 1900s. Combining the two analogies I suggest allows us to infer hypotheses about the possible contours and trajectory of the China–US contest, hypotheses that we can and should “test” against unfolding events in the years to come.

I began with a question about the “most suggestive” instead of the most appropriate analogy because all historical analogies are suspect. By definition, a historical analogy is a linguistic–heuristic device that highlights the similarities between two different entities or events. What this means is that while analogies can suggest possible parallels between two historical events, they can “never prove that because A and B are alike in respect to X, they are therefore alike in respect to Y” (Fischer 1970, emphasis added). Students of how decision-makers use history have come up with three main ways to mitigate the problematic use of historical analogies, especially in the domain of foreign affairs. The first focuses on increasing the repertoire of analogies to be consulted instead of fixating on one. Insofar as different analogies provide different diagnoses and policy suggestions, the decision-maker is forced to think more deeply about why she/he picked analogy A instead of B or C to make sense of the situation (May 1973). Second, decision-makers can also adopt techniques such as separating what is known from analogical comparison from what is unclear/presumed, as well as inspecting the history of the given issue. These techniques “drill” into the chosen analogy and enable the user to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses (Neustadt and May 1986). Third, some have suggested putting analogical inferences to empirical or policy tests in ways akin to how scientists test their theories (Khong 1992, 247–249). For example, if the Cold War analogy leads us to expect the intensification of US–China competition as China catches up with the US, and it should be possible to devise indicators to measure the intensity of the competition across selected domains.

Before delving into the Cold War analogy, a brief discussion of why we will not be focusing on two other prominent historical analogies—the rise of Athens and the fear it generated in Sparta in fifth century BC Greece, and Germany’s rise in the 1900s and the consternation it caused Great Britain—is necessary. The main reason for not dwelling on them is that the Soviet–US Cold War rivalry, or “Cold War 1.0”, also exhibits the “rise and fall of great powers” dynamic found in those earlier analogies. In Destined for War, Graham Allison drills deeply into the Athens–Sparta analogy as a way of understanding the logic and dangers of the growing China–US rivalry. But he also convincingly portrays the Soviet–US rivalry in terms of competition between a rising and a ruling power (2017, 42, 200–213, 281–283).

Second, while I accept that the Athens–Sparta rising power-incumbent power logic is key to understanding the China–US rivalry today, the differences between fifth century BC Greece and today are sufficiently stark to render the analogy, however arresting, questionable. The World War I or Germany–Britain analogy, which is comparatively “closer” in time to today’s China–US rivalry, also incorporates the rising–ruling power logic, and is a good contender for the most promising analogy to illuminate the China–US contest. However, questions have been raised as to whether analysts have identified the right pair of antagonists. Steve Chan has argued that the real rivals caught in the power transition logic were Germany and Russia, not Germany and Britain. According to Chan, Germany saw Russia as the rising power it had to contend with in the 1900s and its launching of preventive war in 1914 was aimed at Russia (Chan 2008, 51–62). Bottelier, on the other hand, suggests that the real power transition that occurred in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century involved Great Britain and America. For him, “Germany never overtook Britain as a global power. The United States did it” (2017, 752). Chan and Bottelier, in other words, raise important questions about the identities of the rising and incumbent powers for those who look to the World War I analogy.

A bipolar Asia

But the most persuasive reason, in my view, for preferring the Cold War to the World War I analogy has to do with the structure of the international/regional system: Europe was multipolar in the years before World War I, whereas Asia today is bipolar and in that sense, analogous to the structural context of Cold War 1.0. According to the Lowy Institute’s (2019) measures of the comprehensive power of 25 nations in Asia, the US today is the most powerful nation (84.5/100), followed closely by China (75.9), and then Japan (42.5), India (41.0), and Russia (35.4) (Lowy Institute 2019).Footnote 2 Because the US and China are way ahead of the others, they are classified as the “superpowers” of Asia, with Japan, India, and Russia being “major powers”. A strength of the Asia Power Index (API) is that while it weighs measures of hard power (i.e., economic and military capabilities) most heavily (17.5% each), it also incorporates other less tangible dimensions of power, such as resilience (10%), future resources (10%), and soft power/cultural influence (10%). For those who believe that economic and military power deserve greater weight, the API tool allows them to make adjustments accordingly. For example, if their hard power attributes are increased to 30% each, the US and China would still remain far ahead of other nations in overall power. This notion of the US and China as Asia’s two superpowers is the basis for claiming that Asia today is bipolar. The focus on Asia is necessary and legitimate because Asia (and more specifically East Asia) will be the main arena of contention in the China–US competition. The Lowy measures also indicate that China is closing in on the US and that power transition politics is already in play.

As international relations theorists argue, structure establishes the basic parameters within which states act, although it does not determine their choices. In a bipolar world, one’s adversary is clear: it is the other superpower. Gains by one superpower are viewed as losses for the other. Alliances matter, although they are less crucial (because of concerns about allies’ reliability) than one’s internal efforts to balance against the competition (Waltz 1979, 169–176). Thus, the Trump administration’s identification of China as America’s “strategic competitor”, its accusations against countries such as Japan and Germany of “free-riding” on US for their security, and the fact that US consternation about China’s rise is bipartisan and will outlast the Trump administration, are all consistent with the expectations of bipolarity.

Cold War 1.0 and China–US relations: some parallels

In a recent speech, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat provided one of the most succinct assessments of the US–China conflict and its sources. For Heng, “it is a strategic competition between two major powers—the incumbent and an emerging one—for global influence and leadership….It is also about differences in their systems of governance and how their societies are organized, which stem from their own histories, cultures, and values” (Prime Minister’s Office Singapore 2019).

Replace “China” with the Soviet Union, and the description fits the US–Soviet Cold War rivalry well. Although not all scholars view the US as the “incumbent” power and the Soviet Union as the “emerging one” during the Cold War, this is an entirely plausible view. Graham Allison characterizes the Soviet Union as the emerging power and the US as the incumbent power in Destined for War; this view is consistent with the underlying rationale of US containment policy during the Cold War, which aimed to prevent the extension of Soviet communist influence to regions in which America was hegemonic. On all the other elements of what the competition is about—global leadership, different governance systems, societal arrangements—Heng’s assessment is applicable to both the current US–China and the previous US–Soviet conflicts.

The Cold War analogy, in other words, is highly suggestive about the stakes and sources of the current US–China competition. Consider the US–Soviet contest for global influence and leadership and the two sides’ attempts to demonstrate whose economic and governance systems and ways of societal organization were superior. The litany of events and crises during the Cold War illustrative of these stakes include the Marshall Plan, the US–Soviet arms race, the Sputnik moment, NASA’s Apollo program, Khrushchev’s boast about “burying” America, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Yom Kippur Crisis of 1973, and the glasnost and perestroika reform policies. Focused as the US and Soviet Union were on matching each other’s military prowess, they were also extremely cognizant of, and devoted great efforts to, buttressing the underlying sources of their strength: their respective political–economic systems, histories, cultures, and values. Ultimately, the US emerged on top in this contest, allowing analysts like Francis Fukuyama to proclaim “the end of history” with the victory of liberal democracy.

Is a similar dynamic or logic, however nascent, evident in China–US interactions today? In the early 2010s, Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill asked the late Lee Kuan Yew—perhaps Asia’s most astute observer of China—whether China aspired to displace the US as the number one power in Asia or the world, and Lee answered:

Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world….The Chinese will want to share this century as co-equals with the US….It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world. The policies of all governments toward China, especially neighboring countries, have already taken this into account (Allison et al. 2013, 2).

China’s interlocutors in Asia and beyond sensed a new confidence on China’s part in the late 2000s. China escaped relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis of 2008–2009 that had engulfed the most hallowed Western financial institutions and caused a severe recession in the West. Zhao Minghao’s analysis of Chinese perceptions of the Sino–US conflict points to 2008 as a psychological turning point (Zhao 2019). The Western financial crisis, in other words, made Chinese officials and scholars realize that China had risen to the point where it could contemplate becoming America’s equal, and perhaps even surpass it in the long run. This understanding also helps explain China’s more proactive, innovative, and assertive foreign policy in the 2010s. Consider China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea; construction of structures on contested islets and atolls; announcement of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea; and establishment of alternative economic institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These are indeed the behavioral manifestations of a rising power confident in its clout and poised to challenge the established power in the region. American strategic thinkers like Richard Betts (1993–1994) and John Mearsheimer (2010) were among those who sensed early on the necessity of a containment strategy against China if the US were to maintain its hegemony in East Asia.

To be sure, the US was far from idle in the post-Cold War era. As it enjoyed the perquisites of being the unipolar power, the US worked to consolidate its primacy, according non-NATO ally status to all its Asian allies, from Japan to Australia. The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations cultivated India and Vietnam, the two Asian nations most concerned about China’s growing clout. Al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks on America forced the US to zero in on the Middle East strategically and militarily, and in that sense, prevented it from giving full attention to the power shifts going on in East Asia. Some have argued that the US response to September 11—taking the fight to Afghanistan and Iraq—was a great strategic gift to China. The US, the established power, was distracted for a decade and more, while China, the rising power, began asserting its prerogatives. If not for the terrorist attack on US soil and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US would probably have caught on to China’s ascendance and its implications earlier.

That the US won Cold War 1.0—thankfully without a direct military clash with the Soviet Union—and its rival was greatly diminished and had to spend much of the post-Cold War years licking its wounds are clear. Few will disagree with Harvey Sapolsky’s analysis in this journal about the full-spectrum military dominance of the United States, then and now. For Sapolsky, that military superiority characterized the First and will continue to characterize the Second Cold War. America’s unique ability to marshal and mobilize its resources to maintain its military–technological edge means it will be hard to beat (Sapolsky 2019). This would be true if the challenge posed by China (let us leave out the Russians for now) in the Second Cold War were primarily military, but it seems to me it is not. China’s challenge is a full-spectrum one, in that it encompasses the military, economic, technological, and ideational fronts.

As Joseph Nye has pointed out, the key issue is can one’s military resources be parlayed to obtain desired political outcomes (Nye 2012)? It is debatable whether US military superiority allowed it to obtain its preferred outcomes in the wars it fought in Asia (Korea and Vietnam) and the Middle East (Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan). If Cold War 2.0 will feature a host of powerful factors—nuclear deterrence, economic interdependence, and the norm against major power war—that prevent China and America from engaging in a major military conflict, competition on the economic, technological, and ideational fronts will be more decisive. Thus the approach adopted by the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, which gives military and economic resources the same weight and incorporates six other measures (resilience, future resources, diplomatic influence, economic networks, defense networks, and cultural influence) to arrive at an overall metric for the comprehensive power of 25 Asian countries, seems like a more comprehensive way to think about security competition in Asia. According to the Asia Power Index, China is behind the US in four of eight indices (military resources, resilience, defense networks, and cultural influence), but is ahead of the US in economic resources (PPP), future resources, diplomatic influence, and economic relationships (Lowy Institute 2019, 12–64).

In Cold War 1.0, the US confronted a one-dimensional (military) superpower in the Soviet Union; in Cold War 2.0—if it comes to pass—the US will face a multi-dimensional power in China. Insofar as economic strength is the underlying basis of military capability (and of most of the other Lowy indices too), it will be the critical variable to watch. If China falters economically in the years to come, then it will be indeed be impossible to challenge the Pax Americana. But if China’s nominal GDP overtakes that of the US in the course of Cold War 2.0, it will give Chinese decision-makers a psychological boost even greater than that of 2008 and endow them with the confidence to parlay that economic might in the service of their desired political objectives. There is also increasing awareness that struggle for technological dominance in areas such as supercomputing, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and 5G/6G will be a key feature of Cold War 2.0. While China was seen as a technological laggard in the past, this view is increasingly being challenged, given China’s rapid advancement in the 5G, supercomputing, and AI fronts. Kai-Fu Lee has argued, for example, that China has an edge over the US on the AI front (2018). The US seems to have woken up to this technological challenge, if the Trump administration’s reaction to “Made in China 2025” is any indication. There is some basis, therefore, for China’s assumption that its economic and technological progress can convince many in East Asia that it is the wave of the future and that it is the superpower they should seriously consider aligning with. Lee Kuan Yew’s quip about how countries in the region are adjusting to its rise also hints at this possibility.

Ideological contest

A second similarity between Cold War 1.0 and the current China–US rivalry is the existence of a strong ideological element. By ideology, I mean the existence of a coherent set of ideas about the organization of politics and economics suited to guiding a society to its end goal. In the Soviet–US case, the ideological struggle was about (Soviet-style) communism versus (US-style) capitalism, encompassing differing visions about the conduct of politics, economic organization, and the ideal society. In the China–US case, for lack of a better summary term, it may be thought of in terms of the Beijing versus the Washington consensus. The Washington consensus relies on free markets and open societies to generate economic growth and protect individual liberty, while the Beijing consensus is agnostic about regime type and sees state-led capitalism as critical to economic advancement and societal stability. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy document paints China and Russia as revisionist powers with values opposite to those cherished by the US and its democratic allies. It singles out China as the power intent on displacing the US in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, like Cold War 1.0, the challenge posed by the rising power to America involves both power and ideology; the two elements reinforce each other and elevate the stakes of the contest. In the case of China, the challenge is even more daunting, because unlike the Soviet Union, China’s authoritarian, state-led capitalism seems to be a model that works. It has lifted more than 700 million Chinese from poverty and helped generate sustained economic growth so much so that, in power purchasing parity terms, the Chinese economy has surpassed that of the US.

Nuclear deterrence

Last but not least is the salience of the nuclear factor. While America’s nuclear arsenal far outstrips that of China’s, the latter possesses a credible nuclear force, enough to maintain the condition of “mutual assured destruction” and hence strategic nuclear stability. Thus, the nuclear situation also resembles that of Cold War 1.0. However, there is a complicating factor in the China–US competition today: the issue of proxy wars. In Cold War 1.0, the US found itself fighting proxies of its adversaries in Korea and Vietnam. Proxy wars, although costly, are widely seen as having helped avert direct military confrontations between the superpowers. The most obvious flashpoints in Asia today, however, are devoid of proxies. In the event of a military conflict between China and Taiwan (for example, over Taiwan’s suing for de jure independence) or China and the Philippines (for example, over the South China Sea), the US would have to decide whether to intervene militarily to help an ally. If the US intervenes, it will entail US and Chinese forces in battle. Cold War 2.0, in other words, may not only become “hot”, but may also involve the two superpowers directly. How far the two sides will escalate such a conflict is impossible to say. Much will depend on the circumstances of the case as well as the personalities of the relevant decision-makers (for example, their need to demonstrate “resolve” or maintain “credibility”). The hope is, given the crystal ball effects of the nuclear situation, neither side will allow a conventional military conflict to escalate to an actual nuclear confrontation.

Differences between Cold War 1.0 and 2.0

In addition to the proxy situation discussed above, one can also point to differences between the security architecture of Cold War 1.0 and 2.0. In the former, the US and Soviet Union formed military alliances to deter each other. In contrast, in the latter, the US alliance system remains in Europe and Asia, and China has no real alliances to speak of. It is unclear what this difference will mean for China in its approach to Cold War 2.0. On the one hand, it may mean that China will prioritize asymmetric military strategies, such as the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. On the other hand, depending on how closely NATO adheres to the US view of China as a military challenge, China may find itself warming to possibility of a China–Russia alliance for deterrence purposes.

Two other differences between the Soviet–US and China–US competitions are especially noteworthy: the strong interdependence between the Chinese and US economies and the different nature of the Chinese challenge. These differences, unlike the lack-of-proxies dilemma, which increases the chances of direct conflict, are likely to reduce the likelihood that China and the US will come to military blows.

The intermeshing of the US and Chinese economies in the last 20 years, especially since China joined the World Trade Organization, is undoubtedly the most significant difference between Cold War 1.0 and the contemporary China–US situation. The Soviet and US economies were intentionally delinked, in large part because the Soviet–US contest was about whose form of economic organization and intercourse would prove superior. The economies of China and the US, in contrast, are deeply (and some argue inextricably) intertwined. The two economies, in turn, are connected via supply chains to numerous other economies. Apple’s iPhone, it is often said, is designed in the US and assembled in China, but involves suppliers from 41 other countries across 6 continents (Petrova 2018).

Political scientists have made much of the role of such economic interdependence in creating strong disincentives for countries to settle disputes through war. The “strong economic interdependence = peace” claim is controversial, in part because economic interdependence did not stop Germany and Britain from fighting against one another in World War I. Refinements of the proposition, especially Dale Copeland’s argument that it is expectations of future trade and investment that are key in restraining war, are more convincing because they specify the conditions under which economic interdependence is conducive to peace (Copeland 2014, 2). Arguments about the qualitatively different nature of today’s economic interdependence, which involves multiple supply chains (thereby increasing the number of economies with vested interests in the continuation of commerce), also imply a higher threshold before conflict occurs. This is because greater pressure from more parties can be brought to bear on politicians to settle disputes peacefully.

But the coupling of the Chinese and American economies is coming under threat as the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry heats up. A series of policies enacted by the Trump administration, including the trade war, heightened US scrutiny of Chinese investments on the grounds of national security, the denial of visas to Chinese students studying science and technology in the US, and the blacklisting of Chinese firms, all seem to suggest that the US is embarking on a conscious policy of decoupling its economy from China (Foroohar 2019). Some call this the “weaponization of interdependence.” The US accuses China of reaping unfair gains at its expense through unacceptable trade and investment policies. Even more serious, from the US perspective, these gains threaten to make China stronger than the US. As Donald Trump put it in August 2018, ‘When I came in we were heading in a…direction that was going to allow China to be bigger than us in a very short period of time. That is not going to happen anymore” (Swanson and Rappeport 2018). China has often objected to what it calls the “Cold War mentality” of the US, the implication being that if only that mentality could be set aside, relations could be put on an even keel.

In his evocative piece, “The looming 100-year US–China conflict”, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times questions the legitimacy of Trump’s “attempt to preserve the domination of 4% of humanity” through “control over…or separation from China” (Wolf 2019). In extremis, the decoupling and bifurcation of the US and Chinese economies will move the two countries back to a situation resembling that between the US and the Soviet Union. From the perspective of restraining military conflict, that would be an unhelpful development.

A second difference between Cold War 1.0 and the current China–US competition, articulated by Melvyn Leffler in this issue and in The Atlantic magazine, focuses on the different nature of the challenge posed by China. The US fear during Cold War 1.0 was the danger of Soviet domination of the key industrial centers of Europe, which would allow it to “slowly aggregate the economic war-making capabilities that would allow it to wage a protracted struggle against the United States” (Leffler 2019a). The US wanted to avoid the internal repercussions of such a protracted struggle with the Soviet Union, because it would move the US in the direction of becoming a garrison state. In contrast, the challenge posed by China in Asia today is less daunting. China does not have the capability or intention to “absorb” the key Asian industrial centers and “aggregate their war-making capabilities” to counter the US. For Leffler, “Present-day China is surrounded by a wealthy and proud Japan, a robust and nationalist India…and a vigorous, competitive South Korea. Chinese opportunities do not abound; indeed, they are circumscribed” (2019a). Moreover, the Chinese and American economies are intertwined in ways that the US and Soviet economies never were.

Leffler’s analysis in The Atlantic leads him to the conclusion that the Cold War analogy is “inappropriate” for “thinking about Chinese–American relations today.” Interestingly, he concludes his piece by referencing a more distant analogy for thinking about China–US relations:

To understand…China…we need only to look at our own history from the 1890s to the 1920s. In those years, the United States pushed relentlessly to force the British to make maritime and fishing concessions in North America. The US insisted that London arbitrate disputed territory with Venezuela and renegotiated treaties that excluded Great Britain from a canal zone in Central America….Washington expected deference to America’s growing economic strength and mounting power….Reflecting on this history, Americans should understand the impulses behind Chinese actions and prudently appraise them (Leffler 2019a, 11).

This is a fascinating, and for some, a disturbing analogy. This rise of the US narrative draws an analogy between the assertive behaviors of rising powers—the US in the 1890s and China in the 2000s—in their respective neighborhoods to make sense of what rising powers do. The US rise in the late nineteenth century resulted in its peaceful overtaking of Great Britain by the 1920s. Is Leffler suggesting the possibility of such a peaceful overtake in the China–US case? This is hard to determine, because he does not say so explicitly. But if he is indeed invoking the “US peaceful overtaking of Britain” analogy to predict, however tacitly, the eventual outcome of the China–US rivalry, he would not be alone. When leading strategic thinkers like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Christopher Layne argue in favor of an offshore balancing strategy, i.e., bringing most US troops home, it suggests that the US foreign policy establishment might be coming around to the American public’s weariness of continuing to shoulder the burden of providing for the security of others (Mearsheimer and Walt 2016; Layne 2018). Donald Trump combines this weariness with resentment when he castigates America’s allies for free-riding on the US, demanding that they pay much more for US protection and threatening to withdraw US troops if they refuse. The US, in other words, is re-evaluating the costs of its hegemonic position. The rest of the world seems to have anticipated this: a Pew 2015 Global Attitudes Survey asked people in 40 countries whether China “will never replace the US” or “will/has replaced the US” as the world’s superpower, and found that a majority or plurality of respondents in 27 countries believed China has replaced or will replace the US as the superpower (Pew 2015).

Testing the analogical inferences

The above analysis of the parallels and non-parallels between the US–Soviet Cold War and present-day US–China relations suggests that while far from decisive, the former does provide plausible conjectures about the latter. That is, despite differences, we can identify troubling similarities between the US–Soviet Cold War and the current state and trajectory of US–China relations. This seems to go against Leffler’s warning about the dangers of resorting to Cold War analogies to “frame contemporary Chinese-American relations”. Leffler’s warning needs to be taken seriously because it is informed by deep historical scholarship and a sensitivity to the role of domestic politics in foreign policy decision-making that international relations theorists often neglect (2019b). But it is also the case that arguments about the applicability of historical analogies are unlikely to be settled by pointing to more parallels or non-parallels, because we do not know which of these will be more significant or decisive in the end. We are basically in the realm of informed guesses.

One way to assess which set of analogical inferences or informed guesses is more plausible is to “test” them, or more precisely, test their observable implications. An example from a real historical case might help clarify what is being proposed here. In the debates leading to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to fight in Vietnam, some (including Secretary of State Dean Rusk) argued that the US could win, like it did in Korea, while others (including Under Secretary of State George Ball) argued that the US would lose, like the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Ball wrote memorandums critiquing the Korean analogy and argued that the Dien Bien Phu analogy was the more appropriate analogy. Seemingly aware of the inability of analogical reasoning to settle the debate, Ball proposed to President Johnson that he test the accuracy of the alternative analogies by committing US troops to fight in Vietnam for a specified period (3 months) and withdraw from Vietnam if the US failed to win. Whether domestic politics would have allowed Johnson to perform such a reality test, i.e., experiment with American lives in the way Ball suggested, is of course a salient question. But not performing Ball’s test meant that President Johnson ended up sacrificing tens of thousands more American lives, not to mention his own re-election prospects, in the protracted and ultimately unwinnable Vietnam War (Khong 1992, 247–250).

How then can we test the plausibility of the Cold War analogy for understanding contemporary China–US relations? To accomplish this, we first have to specify the observable implications of Cold War 2.0, say, for the next decade. What the Cold War analogy leads us to expect are the following: (1) the China–US strategic rivalry will be a contest for influence and leadership in East Asia in the first instance, and globally in the long run; (2) the competition is likely to increase in intensity the years ahead, with crises aplenty; and (3) the contest will remain cold between the two superpowers.

Observation (1) is about the nature and venue of the competition. In ways akin to the US finding the Soviet Union as its peer competitor after World War II, the US today is catching on to the fact that China is its peer competitor. China’s explosive growth in the last 40 years has allowed its comprehensive power to surpass all in Asia bar America, and it is closing in on the US. As the Asia Power Index put it, the US and China are the two superpowers in the region. Asia is bipolar. The center stage of the Soviet–US contest was Europe; that of the China–US competition will be East Asia. The Soviet–US competition lasted for 40 years; that between China and the US is also expected to be a long-term contest. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times foresees a “100-year” conflict (2019).

In testing the insightfulness of this inference, we can ask questions about whether China is beginning to behave like a peer competitor, whether the venue of the contest is indeed East Asia, and whether China takes a long-term view of the competition. The tentative answer, judging from Chinese behavior in the last decade, is yes to all these questions. China’s claims and actions in East and South China Seas, its construction of a third aircraft carrier, its establishment of new institutions/projects such as the AIIB, NDB, and BRI, and its eagerness to step in where the US has left off (under Trump) on the multilateral front suggest that China is already challenging the US in Asia and beyond. The US certainly perceives most of these actions as challenges. Why else would the US (under Barack Obama) try to persuade Britain against joining the AIIB, work with Japan and India to come up with alternatives to the BRI, and increase its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South and East China Seas in 2019? However, if in the future China were to retreat to its pre-2008 behavior of “hiding your strength, biding your time”, entertain second thoughts about the BRI, retreat from its nine-dash line claims, and turn its regional focus from East Asia to Africa, then the expectations of bipolar rivalry in the fashion of Cold War 1.0 would seem less useful in shedding light on China–US interactions.

Observation (2) expects the China–US competition to intensify, punctuated with crises every now and then. If the Soviet–US Cold War is anything to go by, the first decade will be especially fraught, with both sides “feeling” their way through confrontations, crises, and proxy wars. In the Soviet–US case, fear of Greece and Turkey falling into the Soviet orbit in 1947 prompted the Truman Doctrine, in which the US vowed to contain the global spread of communism. Other signature events of the first decade include the proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, with the former being viewed as Soviet-instigated and the latter as Chinese-cum-Soviet supported; the “missile gap”; Sputnik; and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Because the two sides came so close to the nuclear precipice during the crisis—during which there was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear conflict according to President John F. Kennedy—they were jolted into creating mechanisms (e.g., the telephone hotline to enable direct communications between US and Soviet leaders) and agreements (e.g., the 1963 Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty) to regulate their strategic competition.

Much less dramatic than the Truman Doctrine, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (2017) and National Defense Strategy (2018) papers may have had the same effect: they identify China as the US’s key peer competitor. The latter, for example, does not mince its words: “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea” (2018, 1). The geopolitical, economic, military, and regional challenges posed by China are summarized in one succinct sentence. US actions in the last 2 years are consistent with a dominant power’s responses to these perceived challenges. Henry Kissinger’s remark that China and America are in the foothills of a Cold War seems apt (Bloomberg News 2019).

Hopefully, both the US and China have learned from the Soviet–US experience—especially that of the Cuban Missile Crisis—to avoid having to go through similar crises before agreeing on mechanisms and modalities to regulate their superpower rivalry. When East Asians and Europeans voice concerns about being pressured by the two superpowers to “choose sides”, that is an indication of their not wanting to be caught in the security dynamics inherent in a bipolar situation. On the other hand, if the recent phase one agreement to tamp down the US–China trade war is followed by the quick removal of most sanctions, the economic decoupling that began with the Trump administration comes to a halt after the US’s 2020 elections, the Huawei case is settled amicably, and crises are few and far between, then the Cold War analogy will be less useful in figuring out the trajectory of the China–US relationship.

Despite the enduring, intense, and crises-laden character of the China–US rivalry, war between the two superpowers is unlikely. That is the expectation of observation (3), which extrapolates from the experience of the Cold War. Harrowing moments, such as the Nixon administration’s elevation of the US strategic posture from DEFCON 4 to DEFCON 3 to warn the Soviets against intervening in the Arab–Israeli War of 1973, cannot be dismissed in the new China–US competition, but the expectation is that cooler minds will prevail. An additional crucial factor that militates against war is the strong economic interdependence between the US and China. This was absent in the US–Soviet relationship. Hence both the US and China should have strong incentive not to disrupt their economic interdependence in fundamental ways. The Trump administration’s selective economic decoupling of the American economy from that of China is thus a negative step in terms of the avoidance of violent conflict.


We began with Dean Rusk’s statement about how decision-makers perforce look to the historical events they have lived through to make sense of contemporary challenges. Psychologists call this “the availability heuristic”, by which they mean our tendency to recall the events that are most readily available to us. Although there are also historical events—US–Japan tensions in the late 1980s, US–China near-confrontation over Taiwan in mid-1990s, and the US–China EP3 incident in 2001, that are closer in time to today’s ongoing strategic rivalry between China and the US, none is as suggestive as the (Soviet–US) Cold War analogy. The latter is indeed the most obvious and “most available” analogy for today’s decision-makers (even for those who have not lived through it) to make sense of the China–US rivalry. Whether we are in the “foothills” of a Cold War or still some distance from it, it behooves us to use the analogy with care. This article has attempted to highlight some of the similarities and important differences between the Soviet–US Cold War and the current state of China–US relations. The inferences we have made from the similarities as well as the differences are intellectually tantalizing, but they are far from conclusive. We would do well to subject them to continual tests against the unfolding empirical reality of US–China relations.


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    Interview with the author, 1986. Cited in Khong (1992).

  2. 2.

    See this paper’s “Appendix” and Khong (2019) for a fuller discussion of the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index.


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This research was supported by National University of Singapore (Grant Start Up Grant, WBS R603-000-191-133).

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Correspondence to Yuen Foong Khong.



Table 1.

Table 1 Overall power ranking 2019.

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Khong, Y.F. The US, China, and the Cold War analogy. China Int Strategy Rev. 1, 223–237 (2019).

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  • US foreign policy
  • China–US relations
  • Cold War
  • Historical analogies