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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchAmerican Primacy and US–China Relations: The Cold War Analogy Reversed

American Primacy and US–China Relations: The Cold War Analogy Reversed

Authors: Peter HarrisIren Marinova 

Affiliation: Department of Political Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins Colorado, USA 

Organization/Publisher: The Chinese Journal of International Politics

Date/Place: September 13, 2022/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 17


Keywords: American Primacy, US–China Rivalry, the Cold War, Vertical History, Horizontal History, Chronological Proportionality



The article compares the current US-China rivalry to the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War. To better understand the current US-China rivalry, the authors suggest casting the United States in the role of the historical Soviet Union.

The article discusses how China’s “Cold War mentality” has influenced its foreign policy towards the United States, with the aim of challenging US dominance in Eurasia. China has taken various actions, including expanding its nuclear arsenal, investing in missile technology, and collaborating with Russia, in order to achieve this goal. The article emphasizes the importance of historical analysis in understanding long-lasting political patterns and introduces the concept of “Vertical History” to comprehend complex structural forces. It concludes by highlighting the significance of understanding the historical context of US-China relations in resolving tensions between the two countries.

The article argues that while China and the Soviet Union are different, the Cold War analogy can still be useful when the US is compared to the Soviet Union. The US currently occupies a dominant position in Eurasia, similar to the Soviet Union’s military dominance during the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the US chose to maintain forward-deployed military forces after their major victories, which defined the parameters of great-power relations. US primacy in Eurasia limits the freedom of action of other great powers like China and Russia, leading to tensions in US-China relations.

The article suggests that both the US and the Soviet Union dominated Eurasia during periods of relative peace. The Soviet Union’s dominance in Eastern Europe characterized the Cold War era, with the US mobilizing to resist it. Today, the US dominates Eurasia and is the only power allowed to establish an effective sphere of influence.

The authors argue that China’s foreign policy can be understood as an effort to push back against the “beached superpower” of the United States and ultimately undo US dominance in Eurasia. China’s nuclear arsenal, investments in missile technology, economic institutions, and occasional attempts to align with Russia to balance against Washington can all be seen as efforts to erode US dominance. The positioning of US military forces has a significant effect on the ongoing relationship between the US and China, comparable to how the Soviet Union’s presence in Eastern Europe influenced the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The article also asserts that although there are some similarities between the US-China relationship and the US-Soviet rivalry, the Cold War analogy is most appropriate when the current United States is compared to the past Soviet Union. This is because the US, like the Soviet Union, currently holds dominant power in Eurasia, which is the defining feature of the current unipolar international system.

The global context has undergone significant changes since the Cold War, with the emergence of new players like China and the rise of new challenges such as climate change and global pandemics. Additionally, the level of economic interdependence between the US and China far exceeds that between the US and the Soviet Union.

Critics of using the Cold War analogy argue that it oversimplifies the complexity of the US-China relationship and could potentially lead to a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy of a new Cold War. They caution against characterizing China solely as an ideological and military threat, as this approach may result in containment policies that escalate tensions and impede cooperation.

On the other hand, proponents of the Cold War analogy believe that drawing parallels between the US-China relationship and the US-Soviet rivalry can be beneficial. They point out similarities such as competition for global influence and the presence of an arms race. Supporters of the analogy argue that policymakers can learn from the successes and mistakes of the past to effectively manage the current rivalry and avoid repeating historical errors. They contend that China’s current geopolitical circumstances resemble those of the United States in 1945, as both face a dominant rival power on the Eurasian landmass during a time of prolonged peace. The purpose of employing historical analogies in International Relations is to uncover recurring patterns of political behavior and gain insights into future outcomes. To substantiate their claims and analytical framework, they utilize five concepts presented by historian Frank Gavin, including vertical and horizontal history, chronological proportionality, unintended consequences, and policy insignificance. By examining the Cold War analogy through these lenses but in reverse, they argue that it can provide valuable insights into contemporary US-China relations when used appropriately.

Overall, debate surrounding the use of the Cold War analogy in discussing US-China relations underscores the complexity of the current relationship and the necessity for nuanced analysis that considers the unique features of the contemporary international system.

The Cold War era was characterized by a clear bipolar power structure, whereas power distribution in the 21st century is more complex and not easily defined. Moreover, the rivalry between the US and China is not primarily driven by an ideological divide in the same manner as the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union.

The article introduces the concept of horizontal history, which involves examining the interconnections between different issue areas in politics across space and type. This perspective can provide insights into the international phenomena associated with the rivalry between the US and China, recognizing that it is not occurring in isolation. The paragraph emphasizes that the same dynamics driving the US-China competition are likely to have connections with other major world powers, particularly Russia. Russia perceives the US’s ongoing deployments in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other regions as creating an intolerable international environment, similar to China’s discontent with the US’s presence in East Asia. Russia’s dissatisfaction with America’s presence in Europe is even more pronounced than China’s frustration with power distribution in East Asia, as evidenced by Russia’s recent invasions of Ukraine aimed at reshaping its external environment.

The article suggests that the first Cold War was characterized by a specific distribution of power and strategic influence, with the Soviet Union holding a dominant position on the Eurasian continent. This viewpoint aligns with the work of R. Harrison Wagner, who argued that the balance of military power and forward deployments played a pivotal role in shaping world politics during that era. The authors propose that the Cold War analogy remains relevant, with the US now occupying a dominant position in Eurasia and resembling the Soviet Union in this aspect. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the predominant global power, supported by its extensive network of military bases and alliances. The US has exerted its influence through economic and political means, shaping the trajectory of numerous nations worldwide. However, China’s ascent as a major global power has challenged US dominance, driven by its expanding economic and military strength and its assertiveness in pursuing its interests in East Asia and beyond. Many observers now perceive a new Cold War-style competition for global dominance taking shape between the US and China.

The authors contend that the first Cold War was primarily a geographic distribution of power and influence, with the Soviet Union holding a position of near-dominance on the Eurasian continent. This perspective draws inspiration from R. Harrison Wagner’s work. The Cold War was characterized as a competition over specific geographic spaces, with Germany and Japan being of particular significance. Walter Lippmann shared this viewpoint and advocated for the US to orchestrate the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe, thereby restoring the freedom and independence of nations behind the Iron Curtain. The crucial aspect of the post-World War II international system was that the Soviet Union occupied a strategically advantageous position in Eurasia, a feat that previous world powers had historically achieved through conquest and warfare.

The authors draw a comparison between the current rivalry between the US and China and the Cold War, although they highlight notable differences. Unlike the Soviet Union’s dominance in Eurasia during the Cold War, China does not possess the same level of dominance today. The US maintains its position as a dominant power in Eurasia, despite China’s increasing economic and military capabilities. The authors argue that geopolitical factors, such as military power and strategic interests, hold greater importance than ideology or economics in understanding this rivalry. The US seeks to contain China’s rise, while China perceives the US as an actor attempting to uphold its own hegemony in Eurasia.

According to Chinese leaders, US military bases and alliances in East Asia are viewed as tools for projecting US power and encircling China, rather than for defensive purposes. China sees the US-led liberal international order as a threat to its political system and strategic interests, perceiving it as an endeavor to impose US values and norms globally. In response to these perceived threats, China has adopted a more assertive foreign policy, aiming to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond through initiatives like the Belt and Road, as well as by cultivating closer relationships with other major powers.

Beijing believes that the US aims to preserve its hegemonic position in Eurasia by hindering China’s strategic objectives and challenging its dominance in the region. China perceives US military bases and alliances in East Asia as instruments of power projection, and considers the US-led liberal international order as a menace to its political system and interests. Consequently, China has pursued a more proactive foreign policy approach, seeking to augment its influence in the region and globally.

The conclusion underscores the importance of history in comprehending the current state of US-China relations, emphasizing the need for policymakers to consider the long-term implications of their actions. Furthermore, it highlights the role of non-governmental actors, including private businesses, civil society groups, and ordinary citizens, in shaping world politics. Lastly, the conclusion emphasizes the impact of popular culture on global trends and recognizes its potential as a diplomatic tool.


By: Selma Teousarine, MA in IR and International Law



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