Knots of War
Notes on US-China relations from a historical perspective
America must take the long view in charting its course. China is a nuclear power. It is one of the world’s five major geopolitical power centers… In addition, Taiwan’s security interests and the interests of the people of Hong Kong are best served by close ties between its friends and Beijing. The United States and China also promote common interests on bilateral issues, such as intelligence cooperation, trade, and cultural exchange. And with the environment now becoming a major concern in the industrialized countries, how is it going to be possible to deal with global environmental problems without the cooperation of those who rule over one fifth of all the people in the world?
— Richard Nixon, In the Arena (1990)
It would be too good if the problem could be solved. Nature seldom proves favorable to man.
— Soviet physicist Georgy Flerov to Joseph Stalin to convince the latter to start the Russian nuclear program (1942)1
In the decades since President Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, the United States and China have had a cooperative relationship tied together in the knots of economic symbiosis. But over the last few years, those knots have become less cooperative and less symbiotic. Why did that happen, how is it manifesting itself, and what should the two countries do about it?
This essay originally started as notes on Jacob Helberg’s excellent Wires of War. While reading the book, I found myself continuously distracted by looking up additional context for events and facts mentioned in the book2. This essay is largely a patchwork of that research for additional context with some light stitching throughout.
I also think that I have a somewhat unique perspective on this relationship. I was born and raised in South Asia and moved to South East Asia when I was teenager where the specter of Beijing’s supremacy was never too far away. I’ve spent a decent amount of time in China and have lived in the United States since 2016. If nothing else, I have more of an ideological clean slate than most in the western world and understand the appeal of an autocratic government when things are not working like they are supposed to.
Even so, it’s important to remember that this is a topic that, perhaps more than others, requires humility from this writer. I’m not going to pretend to know everything that’s going on and much of the maneuvering in deep physical and digital waters of both countries is invisible to most of us. But I hope to provide a lay of the land as I understand it.
So first, let’s start with US-China 101.
US-China 101: How did we get here?
Given its recent successes, it’s easy to forget China’s past struggles. Given its population, it always had importance but it was a relatively minor player on the big boys table after the industrial revolution of late 17th and early 18th century. To buy into that technological table, you had to have the chips of colonies and currency. China had no colonies and little currency. This led to the “century of humiliation.” From the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) which forced China to cede territories, pay reparations, and grant extraterritorial rights to foreign powers to their defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 which resulted in Japanese occupation of Taiwan, China in the 1800s and early 1900s was not the model of a country on the up and up.
Understandably, these historical foreign infractions still drive decision making in Beijing. For a parallel, consider that Jimmy Carter was the first elected Southern President of the United States since the Cold War3 — that happened in 1977, more than a hundred years after the Civil War ended in 1865. Multiple generations of great Southern politicians came and went during those years without ever having a serious shot at the Presidency. Historical wounds, whether foreign or domestic, run deep.
After Mao’s death in 1976 shortly after the reopening of China to the West in 1972, the most important figure in the creation of the Modern Chinese state was Deng Xiaoping. Deng served as the de facto leader of China from 1978 to 1989 and his stated policy for Chinese global ambition was to “avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something”4 When Nixon, Mao, and Deng collectively “opened up” China to the West, there were promises of liberalization not only in China’s economy, but in China's politics.
In fact, well after he had left office, Nixon continued to support the view that economic openness promises eventual political openness. Writing in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident, Nixon said:
The true source of my optimism was a renewed sense that after some necessary retrenchment Deng’s economic reforms would continue and that with them would inevitably come renewed pressure for political reforms.
But where the western world once admired China’s promises, today it reckons with its practices.
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The Silencing Symphony of the CCP
In a justification for central political and economic authority, Lenin said in 1902, “For the center… to actually direct the orchestra, it needs to know who plays violin and where, who plays a false note and why.”
Over the last decade, the Chinese Communist Party has directed the economic orchestra of China to create a prosperous symphony for many of its citizens. The story of creation of the global middle class is primarily the story of the creation of the Chinese middle class. In the 1950s, over 90% of the global middle class resided in Europe and North America. Today, over 20% live in China5.
Adding to this symphony are the notes of China’s advanced workforce. While initially it was just the factory of the world, its workforce is not about cheap labor anymore (you can find cheaper labor elsewhere.) Workers in China now have hard-won process knowledge — “the kind of knowledge that’s hard to write down as an instruction”6. Famously, Apple CEO Tim Cook said this about the comparison between US and Chinese manufacturing expertise:
In the U.S., you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room. In China, you could fill multiple football fields.
On these notes are other notes of burgeoning innovations. Once, China used to be accused of innovation through IP theft. And while those allegations have not gone away entirely, it is now a true innovator in key segments like electric vehicles. Writing about the recent auto show in Shanghai, industry newsletter Sino Auto Insights writes:
In 20, 30, 50 years from now, we'll likely point to Auto Shanghai 2023 as that watershed moment. It's the moment most media outlets acknowledged that the foreign legacies that dominated the China auto market for the last ~35 years have been overtaken and unable to compete with the EV products that have been
launched by China EV Inc within just the last few years.
The legacies haven't given up by any means, but the writing is on the wall.
Layered on this complex symphony are the notes of uncertainty caused by the United States about its role in the international world order. Since World War II, the United States has cocooned the world in a blanket of military7 and economic influence. The country shoulders global military responsibilities in exchange for its political and economic hegemony. What happens in the United States affects the world, sometimes even more than what happens more locally. And given the American electoral system, we have ended up in a world order where the farmers of Wisconsin decide global security policy. I love the farmers of Wisconsin, but it’s understandable that this state of affairs makes diplomats from Tehran to Tokyo nervous. Comparatively, the stability of the CCP’s traditions and doctrines can occasionally feel tempting.
This uncertainty has allowed China to add another compounding note to its economic symphony. It has become a friend and partner to much of the Global South, especially many African countries. It’s important to remember that most places are not as ideologically rigid as the western world and are open to compromising on terms as long as it meets their current economic and growth needs. In fact, many developing countries believe that you need someone who rules with an iron fist — “to make the trains run on time” — before enlightened goals like complete freedom of speech can be achieved. They are more than happy to finance the expansion of their needs today through financing and expertise from the Chinese. The story of the second half of the 21st century could very well be the story of the economic and political rise of the African continent, enabled by Chinese financing and expertise.
On the symphony are darker notes. Once China had to bide its time, now it has not only the industrial scale of the world’s first or second largest economy8, but also the ability to conduct asymmetric warfare digitally. You no longer need to compete with aircraft carriers (chillingly nicknamed “100,000 tons of diplomacy” by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) that can be placed in international waters just 200 miles away from your country in less than a day. You can just wreak havoc at the Pentagon with a few keystrokes. Traditional military force remains necessary, but no longer sufficient. All while the fate of Taiwan hangs in the balance.
And if a few notes on the symphony are a little dark, some are darker still — and silencing. The Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province have faced systematic human rights abuses over the last few decades. There are allegations of mass detentions, forced labor, cultural assimilation, and surveillance. Reports suggest that over a million Uyghurs have been detained in camps, which China refers to as “vocational training centers.” Some, including the United States, have called this a genocide9. Few, if any, countries are free from blots in the historical record of human rights. But to do so at an industrial capacity in the 21st century offends and insults the collective progress humanity has made in this domain.
And if this silencing orchestra has been composed by the Chinese Communist Party, its lead conductor is Xi Jinping. As comfortable with socialist slogans as he is with Sartre, Xi sees a strong Party with him at the top as essential to the stability of a strong China.
Lenin would be proud.
Haunted by historical scripts: The Second Cold War
Understandably, many in the west have called this conflict a second cold war. This is a dual-edged sword. While it does clarify the scale of the conflict, it makes the western world more likely to follow the script as it played out last time. All while assuming that victory is assured at the end with the metaphorical Berlin wall (maybe in this case the Great Firewall) coming down at the end of it.
The United States and the western world order are obviously animated by their historical winning streak. The last time the United States went up against an ideological counterweight, it won decisively. Xi and the CCP are acutely aware of this. From a New Yorker profile of him in 2015:
In 2009, he commissioned a long study of the Soviet Union from somebody who works in the policy-research office,” the diplomat in Beijing told me. “It concluded that the rot started under Brezhnev. In the paper, the guy cited a joke: Brezhnev brings his mother to Moscow. He proudly shows her the state apartments at the Kremlin, his Zil limousine, and the life of luxury he now lives. ‘Well, what do you think, Mama,’ says Brezhnev. ‘You’ll never have to worry about a thing, ever again.’ ‘I’m so proud of you, Leonid Ilyich,’ says Mama, ‘but what happens if the Communists find out?’ Xi loved the story.” Xi reserved special scorn for Gorbachev, for failing to defend the Party against its opponents, and told his colleagues, “Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”
For the Chinese, this remains a conflict that is driven partly on ideological grounds. Reports that say that China is not ideological driven are exaggerated, Xi Jinping has said that “Socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism.”10 And Communism is definitionally deterministic and says that conflict with the capitalists is inevitable. Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto says, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”
Historical scripts inspire and haunt both countries.
At the broadest level, Chinese leaders have mimicked the old Soviet Union in their calls for a multipolar world. That’s “code for the dilution of American power in the post-war international system.”11 China aims to change international organizations and structures to — in the words of Xi Jinping — “lead the reform of the global governance system.”
They have also taken the baton from the Russians in terms of creating the non-Western digital world order. In Wires of War, Helberg describes how China is trying to take over every level of the modern technology stack, from semiconductors to the apps on the black mirrors we all carry around in our pockets. This has created a technological Gray War12 with China.
To add to this digital world order, they are actively engaging in industrial espionage. This has always been the case amongst competing nations. During World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States were “allies”, the Soviet stole troves of information about the ongoing efforts to build the world’s first nuclear bomb. And while some advanced sources were cultivated by the Soviets, much of this espionage was through the haphazard network of “fellow travelers”. But Chinese efforts are a lot more organized. Through programs like the Thousand Talent Program, they are actively directing programs for people to commit industrial espionage.
With the ideological goal of a multi-polar world, the resources and intention to wage a technological gray war, and a desire to get an edge through espionage, it’s clear that there is an ongoing Cold War with China. So what should the principles that should drive the response to it?
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Neither Denial nor Despair: Principles of a US-led response
If the language of the Cold War animates this conflict, so must its events. And no event was more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The crisis was triggered by the discovery of Soviet missile installations in Cuba, capable of launching nuclear weapons towards the United States. The U.S. demanded their removal, imposing a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent further missile shipments. Tensions escalated as both superpowers engaged in intense negotiations and military posturing. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: the U.S. pledged not to invade Cuba, and the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites.
Days before the compromise, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote to President Kennedy:
If you have not lost command of yourself and realize clearly what this could lead to, then, Mr. President, you and I should not now pull on the ends of the role in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dread forces our two countries possess.
When Khrushchev referred to the “dread forces” that the United States and the Soviet Union both possessed, he was of course talking about the nuclear arsenal that both countries still have across missile silos, submarines, and bombers. China is also part of the nuclear club. So, avoiding nuclear war is an easy one to start with in terms of guiding principles.
The other principles should be:
Separation between the Chinese people and the CCP: This is critical not just because it reflects reality, but because there is a large Asian American population (~7% of the total population, largely concentrated in urban areas) in the United States. The United States does not have a positive history when it comes to racial discrimination against its own non-white population during times of conflict (see: Japanese internment camps during World War II, Arab Americans after the Patriot Act) so it is important to keep and emphasize this distinction at every level of government.
Alliance building: One of the things that the United States has to do in exchange for its hegemonic rights is play the role of a captain/coach/owner of alliance building when tackling large challenges. Unilateral actions are more likely to be rushed and misguided. Admittedly, occasional decisive actions must be taken — wars (whether cold or hot) are not won by committee. But still, it’s better to keep the rest of the world with you in this conflict.
Lean into the ideological attractiveness of the West: The Chinese state is ideologically unattractive to most, even developing countries. It’s a state where individual liberty is restricted and where economic achievements could be vaporized at the whims of the party leadership (just ask Jack Ma.) The West remains largely ideologically attractive in the freedoms that it affords its people. Though it’s not without its problems, millions and millions of young men and women around the world still want to come to the United States to build a better life for themselves. That’s an edge in the soft power war and it’s one that’s the United States’ to lose.
Abandonment of domestic ideological goals: Speaking of ideologies, serious domestic compromises have to be made over the next decade or two as this cold war with China reaches its crescendo. For example: whatever their view of unions, the Right should be thoughtful about not voting against critical infrastructure bills just because it mandates that a certain percentage of it has to go to companies with unionized workforces. It’s naive to assume that the Government doesn’t pick winners and losers in the United States — it just needs to now pick the right ones. Similar examples can be given for the Left. There’s simply bigger fish to fry.
The overarching principle should be one of neither denial nor despair. As we will see, the West is already taking many of the right steps. But it must be clear-eyed about the challenges that lay ahead. Unfortunately, these principles will occasionally evolve into actions that have to be explicitly anti-China. But in my view, it would be better to ruffle some feathers than to see the current generation of diplomats be orderly custodians of the decline of the Western world.
The reality of the US (mostly economic) response
First, an important acknowledgement here is that much of military preparedness is going to be classified. There is no way for most members of the common public to find out what these preparations and advancements look like. This has always been the case. During World War II, then Senator Truman had a committee to investigate inefficiencies in the military. When Truman came across a multi-billion dollar black hole dispersed through Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, he was simply asked to not ask too many questions — questions that would have the ultimate answer of “we’re building the world’s first nuclear bomb.” When it comes to military preparedness, we are operating in the realm of known unknowns.
I will say this: much has been said about the American declining ability to create an ‘Arsenal of Democracy.’ Just broadly, I’m not going to bet against America’s ability to create bombs and bandages for any conflict it finds itself in. Importantly, it has never won the war with weapons that it came into the conflict with. Perhaps the latest example of this continued techno-supremacy is how effective the COVID vaccines have been compared to the other global alternatives.
With that in mind, let’s see what has already been done to counteract the challenges that China presents the United States with.
So far, the response has been primarily economic driven, focused on “de-coupling” or “de-risking.” Contrary to the Soviet Union, the global economy is deeply intertwined with the Chinese. China produces much of the goods that you find on the shelf at Walmarts scattered across rural towns in the United States and China’s urban centers power the profitable flywheel’s of many of the West’s largest companies. This makes the economic focus prudent. This focus has been further narrowed to critical industries like semiconductors. The ban on Chinese company Huawei, the passing of the CHIPs act, and the building of the TSMC factory in Arizona all seem to be directionally correct approaches.
Another remarkable achievement has been consistency across administrations. When there is a new administration, employees from the old one clean out their desks across the marble buildings surrounding the White House, find new jobs in the private world, and geopolitical stances change as quickly as what’s the most relevant neighborhood in Washington DC. But a strong anti-CCP stance has stayed the same and has broad appeal across the country.
And the rising tide of concerns about China’s autocratic streaks has found more permanent legislative channels through which it could flow towards resolution.
That channel can be found in Room 538 of the Cannon House Building flanking the United States Capitol on 27 Independence Avenue — the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party created at the beginning of 2023. Led by Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, this is one of the few rooms in Washington, D.C. where you’ll find a level of bi-partisionship that one would think was relegated to the history books like an extinct species of birds. The committee has the role of coordinating all concerns and investigations with the way that the CCP is projecting power inside and outside the United States, ultimately crafting a more coherent approach. And while I don’t expect the United States Congress to be the most insightful minds on subjects like Internet regulation, I do think that when it comes to geopolitics, they might have an edge on your average person.
There is something left to be desired when it comes to alliance building, but that’s a grand strategy project that’s not going to be sorted out in a couple of years. Multiple generations of politicians and diplomats will have to create a Western web of alliances that can hold its own against the centralized powers of the Chinese Communist Party led by Xi Jinping.
We should end on a cautionary note. There is little value in ensuring the supremacy of the Western world if its traditions of individual liberty and a desire for peace do not survive with it. Excessive adventurism can lead you to the civilizational graveyard pretty quickly. That has been the lessons that Great Powers across millennia have learned. The current hegemon would do well to remember that.
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Jacob’s book is focused on various aspects of digital competition — a thorough investigation that has landed him a job as a Commissioner in the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
While Lyndon Johnson (from Texas) was President after JFK’s assassination, it’s likely that he never would have won an election to win the Presidency. In fact, he did try in 1956 and 1960, losing both times. Only after he was able to show people what he was able to do in the Oval Office was he re-elected in 1964.
Perhaps the most compelling example of this is the fact that not only does the United States have the world’s largest air force — the United States Air Force — but also the world’s second largest air force — the United States Navy.
Regarding the Construction of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (2013) by Xi Jinping
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaking at The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National Institute of Singapore in 2018
A New Framework for Understanding and Countering China's Gray Zone Tactics by The RAND Corporation