China’s spy balloon: A new cold war unfolds before our eyes

For Americans, this past week should bring into focus an unpleasant reality: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a cold war against us and we are only just beginning to recognize it.  

The revelation that the Chinese Communist Party’s military has been conducting a multi-year campaign to fly surveillance platforms over the United States (and other countries) comes as a shock for many, and some are still in denial. But this is just the latest piece of evidence in a decade-long slide from a hopeful partnership to an outright rivalry with the PRC. The fact that this shift has taken place calls into question our earlier faith that persuasion and reassurance can smooth over any hostility. 

President Biden’s decision to cancel Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing — what would have been the first Cabinet-level visit to the PRC of his presidency — suggests that at least some within his administration understand the geopolitical realities of this new cold war. 

Unfortunately, this new geopolitical condition is only dimly understood across our society, and this lack of understanding has encouraged many to dismiss these changes as the product of partisan politics or view them through a lazy narrative of “China hawks” versus “engagers.”   

Make no mistake, Beijing is waging a cold war against us, and its leaders would prefer that we remain ignorant of this fact and divided in our response to it. 

To fully grapple with this new cold war, our country will need to examine how we found ourselves in it and debate what we must do to wage it in ways that protect our interests and reinforce our values. That requires responsible leadership from across society and will force us to make difficult trade-offs. Issues as contentious as trade and immigration, entitlement programs and defense spending, monetary and fiscal policies, and scientific research and industrialization must be considered through this new lens. The sooner we recognize this reality, the better positioned we will be to respond appropriately, create some semblance of political consensus, and build a degree of strategic stability. The outcome we should seek is an international system that protects our values and avoids direct military conflict between the United States and China. 

We must reject the fallacy that acknowledging this cold war and waging it responsibly will inevitably lead to Armageddon. Kicking the can down the road or hiding one’s head in the sand (to mix metaphors) is far more dangerous because it compounds the inevitable miscalculations and misperceptions inherent in a rivalry. A cold war is far preferable to the two alternatives, capitulation or a hot war between nuclear powers. 

One of the reasons why Americans — and the citizens of other democracies — find this geopolitical condition so hard to accept relates to typical human nature: This isn’t the outcome we wanted or expected.   

For five decades, leaders from across multiple democracies and various elements of our societies sought to transform the PRC into a partner through economic development and engagement. Due primarily to the ingenuity of the Chinese people, as well as our own efforts to assist them, the PRC has become wealthier and more technologically advanced than we could have expected.   

While the “means” of our strategy consisted of economic development and diplomatic engagement, along with an ever-present military hedge, the “ends” of our strategy was the political transformation of the PRC from within — changing it from a brutal authoritarian regime that had been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own citizens into something resembling a stable, multi-party political system in which power was shared across constituencies and state power was limited.   

The intent of this strategy was not to make the PRC into a carbon copy of ourselves, but to make it soluble within a rules-based international system built upon the liberal concept that there are limits to state power vis-à-vis the individual. It is this concept of the “limited state” that both Beijing and Moscow reject as an existential threat to their leaders’ monopoly hold on power. While the Chinese Communist Party correctly identified our strategy as one of “peaceful evolution,” the best shorthand for this strategy remains a German phrase: “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade).  

However, Beijing’s political transformation, which was necessary for a lasting partnership based on mutual interests, did not take place. The Chinese Communist Party understood that a political transformation of this sort would result in one clear loser: themselves. We underestimated the party and overestimated our own agency in bringing about the kinds of changes we found desirable. Unsurprisingly, the party took steps to develop a counterstrategy and wage a cold war against us to protect their interests. 

We must stop underestimating the Chinese Communist Party and take seriously the challenge of waging this new cold war.  

Matt Turpin is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior advisor at Palantir Technologies specializing in U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China, economic statecraft, and technology innovation. From 2018 to 2019, Turpin served as the U.S. National Security Council’s director for China and the senior adviser on China to the secretary of Commerce.