Are The U.S. And China Headed For A Cold War? U.S.-China tensions are rising on almost every front, and there are plenty of parallels to the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Analysts say competition is inevitable, but doesn't have to lead to confrontation.
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Are The U.S. And China Headed For A Cold War?

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Are The U.S. And China Headed For A Cold War?

Are The U.S. And China Headed For A Cold War?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three decades after the Cold War ended between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, some American intelligence officials are wondering out loud if there is a new Cold War brewing, this one between the U.S. and China. The Defense Intelligence Agency has released its first unclassified report on China's military. Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The head of analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Neil Wiley, has a top-floor office suited for deep reflection. He looks out over the Potomac River and across the water toward the top brass at the Pentagon.

NEIL WILEY: It's actually a pretty spectacular view. I'll take...

MYRE: Which helps him contemplate big ideas, like challenges the U.S. faces with China, now routinely described as America's main rival. For the first time, the DIA has put out an unclassified report on China's military, similar to those it issued on the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

WILEY: Chinese military has undergone a substantial program of modernization, to the point now where they are a near-peer military.

MYRE: The report doesn't use the term cold war, but it catalogues China's military rise - a budget second only to the U.S., aggressive moves on disputed islands in the South China Sea, joint military exercises with Russia. Historian Walter Russell Mead recently wrote a Wall Street Journal column under the headline "Americans Aren't Ready For Cold War II." The U.S. has failed to build a consensus on dealing with China, he says, in contrast to the unified American front against the Soviets. He doesn't think the U.S. and China are doomed to a military showdown, but he's quick to add...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: This has almost always been the case through human history - that when people rationally sum up the costs and benefits of war, it's very often the smarter thing not to go to war. And yet wars still happen.

MYRE: The U.S. and the Soviets waged a political and military rivalry. The U.S.-China relationship is far more complex. There's a half trillion dollars in annual trade, 350,000 Chinese students at U.S. colleges, tourists jetting back and forth daily. For these reasons, Susan Thornton, a senior U.S. diplomat for Asian affairs until her retirement a year ago, thinks the Cold War analogy is overblown. And yet...

SUSAN THORNTON: I do fear that we are headed into an era of unceasing kind of confrontation, where the U.S. is seeking to challenge China on every front from military to economic to technological.

MYRE: She feels the current U.S. approach, including the trade war, is raising tensions. Roy Kamphausen is a retired Army officer who heads the nonpartisan National Bureau of Asian Research. He says China has adopted an increasingly negative view of the U.S.

ROY KAMPHAUSEN: The Chinese leadership judged that the United States was - is a wasting great power by virtue of our mismanagement of our financial system, which led to the great financial crisis.

MYRE: And on the military front...

KAMPHAUSEN: They see our entanglements in wars as diminishing our power for very little strategic gain. And so they sense an opportunity. They sense that their time is now.

MYRE: The Chinese government recently issued its own military assessment. It says the U.S. has, quote, "provoked and intensified competition" among major countries, adding complexity to regional security in Asia. So where's all this heading? Analysts cite three important areas to watch. The first one is Taiwan. Neil Wiley says there's...

WILEY: The clear and consistent desire on the part of China to have a military option for the reunification of Taiwan.

MYRE: Roy Kamphausen adds a caveat, noting that China hasn't fought a war in 40 years.

KAMPHAUSEN: That's a military that's terribly risk averse. The Chinese want to intimidate, coerce, influence Taiwan in directions that support their own objectives, you know, below the threshold of getting the U.S. involved militarily.

MYRE: A second big issue, says Walter Russell Mead, is China's vulnerability at sea.

MEAD: The strongest tool America has is its ability to stop ocean commerce going in and out of China.

MYRE: China depends on global trade. That includes crucial imports like oil and gas and its exports to the world. If the U.S. ever imposed a naval blockade...

MEAD: You'd have a massive economic seize-up inside China.

MYRE: A third big concern is the ongoing cyberbattle. The U.S. accuses China of waging nonstop cyberattacks on government, military and commercial targets. There's a high risk of escalation.

MEAD: We don't know what China's cybercapacities are. They don't know what ours are. And in any case, both countries' capacities and the field of engagement is dramatically changing from year to year.

MYRE: Add all this up, and you get two countries locked in constant competition. The challenge is to keep competition from turning into confrontation.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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