[The United States] has announced a new strategic approach to China. The move has been interpreted as an escalation into a new “Cold War,” reminiscent of the old competition between the West and the Soviet Union.
But the new strategy for China is profoundly different from the political containment and détente strategies that the United States followed during the real Cold War. The competition with the Soviet Union and its allies was fundamentally political and military. A spiraling nuclear arms race converged in central Europe where two opposing military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, were poised for war. Moscow aggressively promoted the spread of communism, opportunistically fomenting and supporting revolution and guerilla wars around the world.
The Soviet Bloc, however, could never successfully compete with Western democracies in the marketplace. The rigid, centrally planned approach to economics pursued by Soviet-style communism did not hold a candle to the dynamic free-market economies of the West. The Soviet Bloc operated within its own closed economic world, generating far less prosperity than market-based economies. Ultimately, the Soviet system collapsed of its own weight, strangled both by its centrally planned dirigisme, and Western alliance trade controls that denied the Communist Bloc access to advanced technology and products. Anyone from the United States who traveled to Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s thought that they had walked into a time warp, a country stuck in the 1950s. In the end, the Soviets did not have the economic ability to keep up the military competition with the United States and its allies. The arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union and its centrally planned communist, economic system.
The current situation with China bears no resemblance to any of this. China is the world’s largest, market-based economy in purchasing power parity terms. The Chinese challenge is overwhelmingly a question of market governance. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China does not seek to impose or spread its style of communist rule on other countries (other than Taiwan), either by military means or political persuasion.