In the first Cold War, the United States and our allies had a secret weapon against the Soviet Union and its satellites.
It didn’t come from the CIA. Nor was it a product of DARPA or the weapons labs at Los Alamos. It was communism.
Communism aided the West because it saddled an imperialist Russian state with an unworkable and unpopular economic system that could not keep up with its free-market competitors. “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”–the quintessential Russian joke about working life in the workers’ paradise–goes far to explain why a regime with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads simply petered out.
Now we are entering the Second Cold War, this time with China. That’s the takeaway from this month’s U.S.-China summit in Anchorage, in which both sides made clear that they had not only clashing interests but also incompatible values.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken bluntly accused China of threatening “the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, replied that the United States had to “stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
A few days later, China and Iran signed a 25-year $400 billion strategic pact, including provisions for joint weapons development and intelligence sharing.
Maybe things will get better. But it would be foolish to count on it, much less suppose that conciliatory behavior by the Biden administration will do anything other than embolden Beijing. So it’s worth thinking about what, if anything, our secret weapon might be this time around–not the overt strengths that we can bring to bear on China, like trade sanctions or naval power, but rather the inner weakness that the regime can’t get rid of because it’s part of its DNA.
Three candidates come to mind.
The first is nationalism. Since China’s leaders abandoned orthodox Marxism, nationalism has been one of the two pillars of the regime’s legitimacy (the other is the rising standard of living). Nationalism explains Beijing’s truculence when it comes to its maritime and territorial claims against its neighbors, its massive arms buildup, its escalating threats to Taiwan and its habit of wearing out its welcome even in countries it seeks to woo.
But the problem with assertive nationalism is how the neighbors react. Japan is engaged in a major military buildup, with China topmost in mind. Australia is moving, a little awkwardly, to curb Chinese influence. Vietnam keeps edging closer to the United States.
Washington doesn’t have to encourage nationalism in order to benefit from it. But the best thing the administration could do to solidify this quiet containment is re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the Trump administration so heedlessly trashed.
The second is cult-of-personality politics. Xi Jinping has consolidated power like no other leader since Mao Zedong. In some ways this has made Chinese authoritarianism more efficient, in ways that can seem enviable when compared with the West’s shambolic governance in the face of a crisis like covid-19.
But Xi cannot overcome the inherent weaknesses of hyper-centralized power. The more power one man holds, the more vulnerable the entire regime is to his misjudgments. The more he tries to project an image of invincibility, the likelier he is to wall himself off from unpleasant but necessary information.
And the more he cuts off internal channels of dissent, the more he foments precisely the kind of ideological and political disenchantment he seeks to quash. Xi is creating the very critics and enemies who may someday be the regime’s undoing.
Finally, there is China’s ever-expanding campaign to regulate, monitor and control God–not in the sense of a higher power, but of an inner voice.
China’s leaders (including the ostensibly more liberal ones) have always been ferocious in their repression of spiritual and religious movements–whether it’s Falun Gong, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism or independent Christian churches–because religion cultivates a moral conscience independent of political control.
But moral conscience is not something any government in history has been able to compel, which is why the West was wise when it adopted the principle of religious liberty. And Joe Biden should underscore this essential difference with Xi at every opportunity, including by inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House, as well as other Chinese faith leaders.
None of this is to say that containing Beijing won’t also require actively building alliances, exerting economic pressure and preserving a powerful military deterrent. But as we imagine how we might bring a Second Cold War to a peaceful end, it helps to consider how China’s regime could become a partner in its own undoing.
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.