Would the United States benefit from a cold war with China? To assess what best serves our national interests, it is imperative to consider the full implications of existing and potential flash-points. To highlight these, as well as the current misinformed and misguided US policies, I propose four plausible strategies that would significantly escalate tensions with China:
(1) Increase and diversify arms sales to Taiwan
This will likely incite similar tensions to the Soviets sending missiles to Cuba. It will deliver a clear message to Beijing that the United States prioritizes the ROC’s sovereignty over relations with the mainland, and it will entrench our ideological opposition to China at any cost. It will also certainly escalate maritime conflict in the South China Sea.
(2) Destabilize Nigeria and Angola
This proxy war could be accomplished with a mixture of debt-loading, currency manipulation, and political hacking – all techniques we used to great effect during the Cold War. These countries represent the flagship infrastructure and resource extraction projects of the BRI in sub-Saharan Africa. They account for a quarter of China’s $60 billion investment in African nations (Brookings). Undermining these efforts would be both a symbolic and economic blow to China’s global ambitions, and would position US-led multilateral organizations to benefit from leveraged “clean up” of destabilized local and national economies.
(3) Promote nationalism at US research universities
In the 2016/2017 academic year, more than 350 thousand Chinese students were studying at higher education institutions in the US – a number that has increased five-fold over the past decade (Statista). Roughly forty percent of these are in graduate programs (Foreign Policy). We have given these bright and highly motivated students unlimited access to our main sources of innovation and cutting-edge research. Just as in China, our government would need to restrict and monitor intellectual activity at universities to ensure that it serves our national interests. This includes using targeted vetting to prevent the enrollment of Chinese nationals with suspicious links to the CCP, the PLA, and other rich, powerful, and well-connected groups within China.
(4) Exclude China from 5G development
This would be a major blow to China’s global ambitions and standing. Samm Sacks and Paul Triolo provide an excellent analysis of this issue (Sinica). Though China’s digital technology implementation has in many cases leapfrogged our own, the potential for its government to manipulate and misuse the new networks trumps any contributions the Chinese might make to successful implementation of 5G in the US and worldwide. Excluding them from the collaborative development process would effectively marginalize their digital capabilities and require them to either adopt the US-backed technologies or risk being isolated on networks of their own design.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Yet, each of the measures described above is representative of any number of policies the US could instate to escalate tensions with China: They require us to abandon aspects of our core values, sacrifice vital economic relationships, and engage in zero-sum brinkmanship. In order to avoid an unwanted war with China, US policy-makers should consider the benefits and risks of cooperation before escalating conflict.