Though no one in our government speaks in these terms, we are decades into a Second Cold War, this time with China. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is so deeply involved in our economy and brazen in its aggression that our ability to deal with the threats it poses is uncertain.
There are a dozen reasons for the U.S.-China rivalry — all of which are based on the ideological difference between America, a free nation, and Communist China, a totalitarian state. It was inevitable that, as China rose and the Soviet Union fell, the imbalance in global power would result in a second cold war between the United States and China.
The natural evolution of the new Cold War has produced an adversarial relationship from China’s pursuit of domination over U.S. allies such as Japan, its persistently aggressive cyberwar against us and its aggression in the South China Sea.
In 1990, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping issued his “24-character strategy,” which centered around concepts such as “secure our positions,” “hide our capacities and bide our time” and “never claim leadership.” China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, hasn’t descended into the shrillness of Nikita Khrushchev’s “we will bury you,” but has given up the pretense of restraint in claiming China’s position as a global power.
One of the hallmarks of the first Cold War was the ideological struggle against Soviet communism. Another was the ever-present fear of nuclear war. Both of those factors are central to the new Cold War but seem to be ignored by American leaders.
Since January, U.S. scientists have been racing to develop a vaccine and treatments for the COVID-19 virus. Chinese cyber thieves have been working just as hard trying to steal every bit of information our scientists possess and every finding they make. China’s cyberattacks are reportedly also seeking to interfere in and sabotage our scientists’ work.
At the same time, China has stepped up its disinformation campaign to spread the false messages that the virus didn’t originate in the Chinese city of Wuhan and that China is leading the global effort to fight the pandemic.
The facts of its disinformation campaign and that China sent thousands of COVID-19 test kits to other nations, most of which were defective, established China’s record. If China claims to have won the race to develop an anti-COVID-19 vaccine, no nation could rationally trust the vaccine’s effectiveness or safety.
While we are fighting the pandemic, China’s aggressive operations in the South China Sea continue. Its ships and aircraft monitor our “freedom of the seas” operations there. By its military machine and growing presence in the South China Sea, China means to block our access there and threaten Japan and South Korea.
China’s ubiquitous involvement in our economy poses its own significant threats, including its domination of the U.S. antibiotics market. Beyond threat, China is finding ways to have Americans help create tools of war it could use against us.
For example, DJI is a Chinese manufacturer of unmanned ground and aerial vehicles which we commonly refer to as “drones.” DJI reportedly makes 76 percent of the UGVs and UAVs sold in the U.S.
DJI’s website invites people everywhere to help program their drones to improve their performance. One of my closest friends often flies a DJI drone with his son. The drone’s equipment records every flight automatically and funnels data back to DJI. (My friend has seen some of his drone flights on the DJI website.) What’s most innovative is DJI’s offer to its “members” to help program the drones.
For $549, you can buy a DJI “RoboMaster S1,” a wheeled drone that can “fight” with a mounted “gun.” If you’re a computer programmer, you can sign up to help reprogram the S1. Every programming idea, no matter how small, is funneled into DJI’s system. Instead of 20 people employed by DJI to improve the RoboMaster’s performance, they potentially have thousands working for free in many nations to improve the drone’s aggressive capabilities.
The DJI program is in the “python” computer language, the current language of artificial intelligence development. Outsourcing AI development through DJI is an asymmetric win for China.
What DJI is doing on a small scale, China’s Confucius Institute is doing far more broadly. Dozens of American universities accept the Institute’s funds in exchange for access to research and Chinese control over how the subject of China is taught.
To counter China, we need to combine military deterrence, economic pressure and strong leadership from the president to heighten Americans’ awareness of the seriousness of China’s threats. Strong presidential leadership is the sine qua non of countering China.
On the economic side, we need to do whatever it takes to restore our independence regarding medicine, rare earth metals and other critical items. We need to legally block U.S. companies from sharing technology with China. To even begin to counter China militarily will require new long-range naval aircraft and missiles as well as new electronic countermeasure systems, and improved defenses against both long-range and short-range missiles.
We don’t want a war with China. Perhaps the Chinese need a war with us to prove their claim to regional dominance. Deterrence worked with the Soviets. It can work with China as well. The ancient Latin phrase, si vis pacem, para bellum — if you desire peace, prepare for war — still holds true.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”