Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition

  • Published

Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition edited by Evan S. Medeiros. Georgetown University Press, 2023, 414 pp.

Evan Medeiros has edited a timely exploration of the history and outlook of relations between the United States and China in his anthology, Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition. Medeiros has considerable expertise as the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in US-China Studies at Georgetown University. His background includes six years serving on the National Security Council as director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, during which time he also served as the top adviser to President Barack Obama on the Asia-Pacific region.

Presenting the complex topic of US-Chinese strategic competition, the anthology consists of fifteen chapters written by a cross-section of leading American and Chinese scholars with a central argument that US-China relations require consistent policy and structure to frame international competition while simultaneously preventing conflict. While the majority of the authors present US-focused considerations, the collection provides counterbalancing perspectives from China’s viewpoint as well. Cold Rivals offers a holistic academic understanding of the history, context, tensions, and opportunities inherent to US-China relations.

The various contributors provide in-depth analyses of the historical tensions and the evolving relationship between the two nations while also exploring how current relations devolved throughout the past decade. Analyzing this relationship through economic comparison, technological change, espionage employment, and the military instrument of national power, the authors clarify how the United States and China arrived at the current state of affairs, considering what potential futures could exist relative to existing tendencies toward escalation. The anthology’s primary takeaway is that increasing tensions between the United States and China mandate deliberate and prudent strategy to prevent miscalculation as the two nations enter into an era of great power competition.

The contributors explore the common question of whether US-China relations are in a state of Cold War competition as asserted by the book’s title, Cold Rivals. The anthology utilizes the Cold War precedent between the United States and the Soviet Union to analyze the current state of affairs between the United States and China. While the US-China relationship does not bin cleanly into the historical Cold War model, this comparison provides a useful framework for studying the two countries while outlining potential outcomes as competition increases amongst the great powers.

The anthology is separated into five parts. The first section employs a historical perspective to contextualize the two nations’ existence relative to one another while explaining how their interests aligned then diverged over the past fifty years. The second section explores economic drivers and the impact of current political administrations in either country with the tendency to exacerbate existing tensions while heightening the potential for conflict. In the third section, the authors review current national policies against the backdrop of military power and espionage considerations. The fourth section continues this analysis of materiel changes in the international environment by orienting primarily to the role of technology and the consequences inherent to technological parity between the two states. In the fifth and final section, the authors envision the future of US-China relations by presenting a spectrum of competition, cooperation, and conflict that demonstrates the likely consequences and dangers of current policies, prejudices, and political preferences.

Along with the diverse perspectives from American and Chinese scholars, Medeiros himself presents his core thesis as the need for consistent engagement to foster competition short of conflict. He adequately supports this argument by gleaning the key themes from the anthology’s contributing authors who use the Cold War framework to explore US-China relations. Medeiros concludes that domestic pressures in both the United States and China compound individual interest as a recipe for potential conflict. Managing the nations’ future relationship mandates a consistent and collected approach insulated from domestic turmoil or interpersonal brinksmanship while gradually fostering a future US-China relationship that enables both cooperation and competition short of war.

This anthology provides thorough insights and context for strategists and military professionals to understand the complexity of US-China relations. Although the chapters all weave into the overarching narrative presented by the editor, they are often redundant and tend to be highly academic. Different authors tread the same ground and make the same points repeatedly. Despite these challenges, however, each chapter covers topics that can stand alone, as each contributor provides well-researched topics and insights. By including articles by authors from both nations with an orientation toward history, the anthology mitigates bias with a firm foundation of scholarly research and carefully considered options for future policymakers.

Particularly interesting for military audiences of all ranks are the chapters on technology transfer, military power, and future scenarios. These chapters explore key tensions between the two nations while considering the possible paths that US-China relations could take. In investigating such future scenarios, the authors showcase the particular danger of unnecessary escalation and personal agency in exacerbating the already-strained US-China relationship. For military professionals and policymakers in particular, these scenarios unveil potential indicators for conflict while underlining the need for a long-term strategy of consistent engagement between the two nations, ensuring a viable future for the US-China relationship.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Wunderlich, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."