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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchChina-US Strategic Competition and the Descent of a Porous Curtain

China-US Strategic Competition and the Descent of a Porous Curtain

Authors: Jue Zhang and Jin Xu 

Affiliation: Peking University (PhD Candidate) /Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 

Organization/Publisher: Institute of International Relations (Tsinghua University)/ The Chinese Journal of International Politics (Oxford University Press)

Date/Place: Volume 14, Issue 3, Autumn 2021/ Beijing, China

Type of Literature: Journal Article  

Number of Pages: 33


Keywords: Cold War, COVID-19, Porous Curtain, Sino–US Strategic Rivalry


The authors are mainly addressing the question of whether there could be a new Cold War by referencing the previous Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The authors state that since the start of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, Sino-US strategic competition has sharply increased, and that ideological conflict and proxy war were two major indicators of the Cold War. For the authors, the main aim for both nations should be regulating the bilateral competitive relationship and working toward cohabitation under competition. The pandemic had a huge negative effect on the relationship between both states as the Trump administration attempted to deflect the responsibility for its inability to implement effective steps to combat the epidemic by using China (and the WHO) as scapegoats. 

The debate over whether or not China and the US have entered a new Cold War persists. There are three primary points of view. First, a new Cold War has indeed broken out between China and the United States because the two countries’ fierce competition in some areas has surpassed that of a Cold War-like economy and technology. Some scholars believe that political, academic, social, diplomatic, and economic tensions between the US and China are at an all-time high and that both governments believe that the other is attempting to undermine their political systems and gather information against them. They see that the crucial distinction between the new Cold War and the old Cold War is that while China and the US have been involved in an extensive contest in ideology, geopolitics, and technology, there is still plenty of space for collaboration in trade and economy, international order, counterterrorism, and development assistance between the two nations.

The second perspective is that the prospect of a new Cold War between China and the United States remains even if one hasn’t started yet, but both countries may take steps to avoid it.  The perspective of the political intelligentsia of the two nations with respect to future global politics and the management of bilateral ties will determine whether Sino-US relations develop into a new Cold War, and only if there are true efforts on both sides can such a war be prevented.

The third argument is that China and the United States won’t descend into a new Cold War. We cannot refer to the current conflict between China and the US as a new Cold War since it is not ideological in origin, as was the case during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The authors compare the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, stating some differences including China’s far lower inclination to propagate socialism and communist beliefs than the Soviet Union, China’s substantial economy, deep economic connectivity, proactive engagement in international organizations, vigorous support for both civil and military technologies, and a lack of agreement among Western allies on how to handle China’s ascent.

Another difference between US-Soviet relations and China-US relations is that the latter dynamic exhibits a significant level of interdependence whereas the former operated on bilateral exclusion. The authors claim that although both parties appear to desire to break the relationship, it will be difficult to carry out this strategy since the two nations have strong and hard economic and trade links. According to this article, the term “new Cold War” refers to “a broad assessment of the current international situation that is comparable to the key characteristics of the Soviet-US Cold War scenario”. The authors state that by contrasting the historical events that occurred before and during the Cold War, we may draw the conclusion that ideological struggle and proxy war are its essential characteristics. From this, the authors draw the conclusion that the United States and China are not in a Cold War because, between the United States and China, there is no real ideological conflict. They then add that ideological clashes like those that took place throughout the Soviet-US Cold War will not be conceivable as long as China maintains its stance that it has no ideological conflict with the United States and continuously avoids conflicts from escalating. The United States’ misgivings about China’s powers and strategic objectives have grown as the strength disparity between the two countries has shrunk, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic as it showed the different styles of ruling.

The article then compares and contrasts the “iron curtain” and the “porous curtain”. The word “porous” mainly relates to engaging in interstate connections as impacted by cross-border trades and global transformation. Its primary meaning is to indicate the contrary of the word “closed.” There are certain key differences between the current Sino-US rivalry and the US-Soviet Cold War. First off, the China-US competing relations still depend on one another, unlike the US and the Soviet Union, which were completely isolated from one another. Secondly, while China and the United States continue to have a competitive but cooperative relationship, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a full-scale blacklisting during the Cold War. The authors repeat that all nations must strive for international collaboration targeted at resolving such global issues, including China and the United States, which is highly idealistic as all states strive for their own personal interests, not for collaboration. Thirdly, other nations use a “hedging” policy between China and the United States, which means they concurrently preserve friendly ties with both sides rather than “taking sides.”  Lastly, the main areas of competitiveness are also distinct. The US-Soviet conflict was mostly focused on ideology, whereas China and the US are competing in the field of technology. Even if rivalry permeates China-US ties overall, collaboration and shared interests continue to play a significant role in the partnership. Consequently, a new Cold War between the two nations is not breaking out.

The authors then proceed to talk about the main features of the current era and how they might help in preventing a new Cold War. First, the rarity of war between major powers suggests that Sino-US strategic rivalry will not take the form of extensive physical conflict but rather a “soft” struggle.  Secondly, globalization’s advancement has increased cross-national contact and weakened the boundaries of today’s areas. Furthermore, technology, rather than trade is at the vanguard of the competition. In addition, the tactical rivalry between China and the United States is escalating as both sides present strategic plans to increase their power and efficiency, which has resulted in a drastic shift in US policy towards China due to shifts in the global power system. The authors define whether there will be a new Cold War by following the US-Soviet model which isn’t completely accurate as there are major differences between both cases, and we can’t apply the same standards to each case when it comes to international relations between states.

The authors suggest the term “Porous Curtain” to describe the present condition of China-US competitive ties while contrasting it with the US-Soviet rivalry. The authors note that as the US has adjusted its competitive strategy against China, it “has taken the general direction of steadily rising competitiveness and a corresponding decline of cooperativeness.” Nevertheless, the authors do not believe that such competition will eventually lead to war—that although there is a “Cold War mentality inherent in US politicians” that is getting louder, there is not an ideological conflict able to escalate to an actual war. In addition, the authors are constantly repeating the same sentence that there can be no new Cold War without providing enough evidence besides comparing it to the US-Soviet Cold War. “The absence of accurate knowledge about the current era’s characteristics is a main reason for the erroneous ‘new Cold War’ theory.”

By: Zeina Akef, CIGA Research Intern



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