Cold War 2.0: How Trump's Attacks on China Could Backfire

An all-out war with China is still highly unlikely, but a new Cold War is something that many believe is already underway.
A mural painting by graffiti artist Eme Freethinker features likenesses of US President Donald Trump and Chinese premier Xi Jinping wearing face covers in Berlin on April 28, 2020 amid the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

In September of 1946, Nikolai Novikov, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., penned what would become known as the Novikov Telegram, which assessed the foreign policy of President Truman as the U.S. emerged from World War II.

“The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the postwar period by a striving for world supremacy,” Novikov warned.


The document has long been viewed as one of the origins of what would evolve into the Cold War between Moscow and Washington.

It is telling, then, that a source speaking to Reuters and close to the Chinese Communist Party cited the Novikov Telegram in April when describing a top-secret report presented to President Xi Jinping that outlined the dangers presented by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment being driven by President Donald Trump and his administration.

The document’s conclusion? Prepare for a military conflict.

An all-out war with China may still be highly unlikely, but a new Cold War is something that many believe is already underway.

Since that report was presented, the coronavirus has killed 90,000 people in the U.S. and tensions between the two superpowers have escalated rapidly. This deterioration has been driven largely by Trump’s campaign of blame against China, backed by administration officials more than willing to blast Beijing to cover for their own shortcomings. China, for its part, has hit back hard, spreading conspiracy theories, threatening sanctions, and mocking America’s ability to deal with the pandemic.

“I think that we are heading in the direction of a new Cold War,” Tong Zhao, a China expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told VICE News. “A major characteristic of cold war is a very intense battle over ideological values between the two blocs and now I think, increasingly, we are seeing the ideological competition being a major part of U.S.-China relationship — and that is only going to intensify over time."


Trade disputes

Back in January, while details of the potential threat from the coronavirus were still unknown to the wider world, the U.S. and China had signed the phase one of a trade deal that had been one of the defining Trump’s goals during his presidency.

He had been elected in part due to his claim that he would reduce or even eliminate the trade deficit with China and so getting the trade deal across the line was a big deal for the administration.

The “phase one” trade deal was more limited in scope that either side really wanted, but it was still hailed as a success.

But that trade deal now appears dead in the water.

Larry Kudlow, the top economic adviser to the White House may be insisting the deal is still workable, but his boss is signaling his willingness to tear up the agreement.

“There are many things we could do," Trump told Fox Business last week. "We could cut off the whole relationship.”

He reiterated his change of position on Wednesday when asked how he felt about the trade deal.

“I feel very differently now about that deal than I did three months ago," the president said. “We'll see what happens. It just seems to mean less to me.”

Experts believe that Trump’s desire to get a China trade deal signed was what was holding back the China hawks within his administration. If that fails, then Washington could unleash much tougher measures likely to significantly anger Beijing.


“In many ways, Trump is the ballast keeping those more hardline national security policies from moving forward, all because he has wanted to make the trade deal,” Bill Bishop, a China expert and author of the Sinocism newsletter, said. “If he now abandons that goal, do not be surprised to see movement around areas Beijing is going to get really upset about, like [harsher] anctions and Taiwan, as well as further efforts in the financial and technology sectors. So we would probably end with a trade war, tech war, information war, financial war and, best case in this scenario, cold war.”

Election politics

With the economy tanking, tens of millions jobless, and the pandemic wreaking havoc across the U.S., Trump is facing an uphill task to convince voters he should be returned for another four years.

So, having spent a large part of his presidency praising his friend Xi and boasting of a close relationship with the Chinese president, Trump is now returning to the attacks on China that symbolized his 2016 election campaign.

But Trump has taken the attacks to a new level, to the point where he is making comparisons with actual military conflicts.

“We went through the worst attack we've ever had on our country,” he said earlier this month. “This is the worst attack we've ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center. There's never been an attack like this. And it should have never happened. Could've been stopped at the source. Could've been stopped in China…And it wasn't.”


Trump’s reelection strategy is also attempting to paint Democratic hopeful Joe Biden as a pro-China candidate, labeling him “Beijing Biden” in a new ad campaign.

But Trump's anti-China rhetoric is now empowering others within the GOP to voice their anger at Beijing, betting that Trump’s brand of populist nationalism and his hawkish approach to China were not passing fads.

On the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo), a rising star in the GOP who is tipped as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, warned that China poses an existential threat to the U.S.

“The international order as we have known it for thirty years is breaking. Now imperialist China seeks to remake the world in its own image, and to bend the global economy to its own will,” Hawley said. “Now we must recognize that the economic system designed by Western policy-makers at the end of the Cold War does not serve our purposes in this new era.”

And it’s not just on Capitol Hill where anti-China sentiment is growing. Two-thirds of Americans now have a negative view of China, according to a recent Pew Research poll, marking the highest level since Pew began collating the data in 2005.

But while the U.S. looks inwards, China is looking to the rest of the world to bolster its standing ahead of a possible cold war.

China’s rise

Anti-Chinese sentiment may be growing in the U.S., but globally, the opposite is true.

Take Africa for example. The U.S. for years was seen viewed as the continent’s major partner when it came to security and aid, but that position has now been taken over by China.


While many Africans remain skeptical about Beijing’s motives, they continue to use the roads and railways built by Chinese companies, get online using Chinese-built cellular networks, and more recently use face masks and coronavirus tests donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

“For the average person in South Africa, or in Nigeria, or Kenya, Ethiopia, their touchpoints with the United States are actually quite a few,” Eric Olander, managing editor of the nonpartisan China Africa Project, told VICE News. “Their touchpoints with the Chinese are countless throughout the day, so China feels more present more relevant in their daily lives. That's very, very threatening to a lot of people in the United States who just don't have an answer.”

“The United States is not exactly a popular country in Africa,” Olander adds. ”Beyonce is very, very popular in Africa, but Donald Trump in many parts of the continent or not.”

There are similar changes happening in Europe.

Opinion polls in Ukraine and Slovakia have shown that China is perceived as more helpful in the fight against COVID-19 than the EU, while an Italian poll has shown that for the first time Italians look more to China than to the United States as a potential international partner.

As China has risen in global importance in recent years, the U.S. has become increasingly sidelined thanks to Trump’s American First policies and it no longer appears to have policies in place to change that.


“The U.S. has lagged behind on communicating and marketing a positive agenda as an alternative to what China is offering,” Kristine Lee, a China expert with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News. “To compete, Washington needs an affirmative agenda and narrative that it can communicate to both domestic audiences as well as allies and partners about what it is trying to accomplish.”

Does China want a cold war?

China has not shied away from the fight. Not only has it ousted U.S. journalists from China, but it has even threatened sanctions against U.S. lawmakers over their criticism of Beijing’s coronavirus response.

It has deployed an army of “wolf warriors:” officials on Western social media platforms tasked with defending China, attacking the U.S., and even spreading conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus outbreak to the U.S. army.

China has also continued to militarize the Pacific, especially around the South China Sea, the world's busiest maritime trade route. In April, tensions were raised further when U.S. warships entered the area.

But for all its bluster, a new cold war is not something that would be a positive for Xi and the CCP.

China’s economy has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, and the dramatic growth the country’s economy experienced in recent years was already slowing.

“China has more to lose over the long term than the United States,” Lee said. “Long-term trends are not favorable for the Chinese economy due to demographics and other secular trends. Even as the Chinese government moves quickly to plug holes and fill vacuums to stimulate growth, these trends are likely to continue and even be accelerated by COVID-19.”


So what about a military conflict?

Experts agree that an all-out military conflict between the two powers is unlikely, but increasingly tense flash points such as Taiwan and the South China Sea provide the potential for the sides to accidentally fall into a military conflict that neither side really wants.

But if a military conflict did break out, most in America would assume, given the $1 trillion dollars spent on the military each year by the government, that the U.S. would win such a battle.

But that’s not necessarily the case, according to a new book called “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare,” written by Christian Brose, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close adviser to late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In the book, Brose highlights just how poorly the U.S. military compares with its Chinese counterpart due to more advanced weaponry such as hypersonic missiles and communication technologies, and a more agile presence in the region.

“Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: We have lost almost every single time.”

Cover: A mural painting by graffiti artist Eme Freethinker features likenesses of US President Donald Trump and Chinese premier Xi Jinping wearing face covers in Berlin on April 28, 2020 amid the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)