As a result, any conflict between China and the United States would be likely to be fought and resolved differently. As Mr. Del Pero notes, the threat of mutually assured destruction that animated the Cold War doesn’t loom as large over the current conflict. But at the same time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore argues in Foreign Affairs, China is a more sophisticated competitor than the Soviet Union was: “The Chinese economy possesses tremendous dynamism and increasingly advanced technology; it is far from being a Potemkin village or the tottering command economy that defined the Soviet Union in its final years. Any confrontation between these two great powers is unlikely to end as the Cold War did, in one country’s peaceful collapse.”
The costs of conflict
Because of how intertwined the Chinese and American economies are, decoupling them would be a very expensive affair, Nathaniel Taplin writes in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, Americans use iPhones and personal protective equipment produced in China, but they also attend universities that after decades of underinvestment are kept afloat by Chinese students who pay full tuition.
“If ‘decoupling’ proceeds, then much more federal funding for basic research — and for U.S. science and math education — may be needed to plug the gap,” Mr. Taplin writes. “That probably means higher taxes and a more welcoming immigration policy for foreign talent from India and other nations to offset a potential Chinese brain drain. Finally, American consumers need to be prepared to pay more for the luxury of a secure and diversified supply chain.”
The process of diversifying America’s supply chains would be long and difficult, writes Michael T. Klare, a professor emeritus of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College, in The Nation. While jobs currently done by workers in China could be moved to other low-cost manufacturing hubs like Mexico, Thailand or Vietnam, he predicts such a shift would take many years to accomplish. In the short run, he says, “the first consequence of an intensifying Cold War could be a weaker than expected recovery from the Covid-19 economic meltdown.”
A Cold War could easily turn hot
It’s not hard to imagine an economic conflict turning into a military one, Mr. Klare adds. As it is, American and Chinese warships regularly encounter each other in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, occasionally at perilously close distances. “As such incidents multiply and tensions increase,” he says, “the risk of a serious face-off involving loss of life on one or both sides is bound to grow, possibly providing the spark for a full-scale military confrontation.”
It’s not immediately clear which country would win such a face-off, the Times columnist Bret Stephens writes. The U.S. Navy, he says, has sunk into a degraded state, weakened by corruption and incompetency, while the Chinese Navy has grown by 55 percent in 15 years. “If the U.S. and the People’s Republic were to come to blows after some incident over some atoll in the South China Sea,” he asks, “are we confident we’d prevail?” It’s a question he says a Biden administration would also have to contend with: China’s expansionism in the South China Sea did not begin when Mr. Trump took office and it won’t end when he leaves.