China and the US have much more in common: historian Arne Westad

Odd Arne Westad, Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University Photo: Xie Wenting/GT

Odd Arne Westad, Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University Photo: Xie Wenting/GT

Editor’s Note:

The world in 2024 is not peaceful. From great power competition to regional conflicts, to numerous global challenges, the global landscape seems to be changing every day. Will the confrontation between Russia and the West lead to a “Cold War 2.0” and the return of the “Iron Curtain” ? Is the temporary stabilization of China-US relations a true departure from the downward spiral trend, or just a short and fragile period of stability?

Recently, Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Odd Arne Westad (Westad), Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University and a leading expert in Cold War history, to analyze the evolution of the international landscape from a historian’s perspective. He believes that the “post-Cold War era” that has lasted for a generation is coming to an end, although it is still unclear what kind of new international order will replace it.

GT: As a historian, how do you view current relations between China and the US? Do you think the two big powers are experiencing temporary stability under the context of prolonged tensions? Or how would you describe the current state of the bilateral relations? Could it be compared to any other historical period?

Westad: When making comparisons with earlier periods, we have to be cautious and acknowledge that there is no complete match. I am very skeptical of comparing the current situation with the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, as there are significant differences between the two. The US and the Soviet Union were not part of the same global economic system, and the ideological differences were much greater between the two sides. Upon reviewing the book written by my colleague Paul Kennedy about the antagonism between Germany and Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th century, I found more similarities with the current situation.

Unfortunately, this historical conflict eventually led to conflict and war. While I am not suggesting that the current situation will necessarily end in the same way, structurally, it shares more traits with that period than with the Cold War. I think in many ways, it is true that enormous changes are taking place now, but they don’t necessarily have to end in conflict.

In reality, China and the US have much more in common. The economies may function differently on some levels, but in most terms, the economies are not that different from each other. They are market-driven in both places, oriented by rules, technology, and advances in economic terms. The two countries also have much in common in how they understand the world. Both of them want stability as a precondition for their own economic development, but they don’t really know how to go about achieving it, and suspicion between the two is increasing.

I think at the moment, it’s clear that the US and China are going through a very difficult period in their relationship. But I can also see ways in which the relationship could be improved incrementally. It doesn’t have to be a downward spiral, but both countries will have to recognize the risks of continued tensions between them and figure out ways to address them. While the US and China will likely always have areas where they won’t see eye to eye, leading to rivalry between the two, it’s important to prevent this rivalry from escalating into a dangerous spiral. This is a danger that we must consider.

It is very frightening to me that the US and China do not have any kind of arms control discussions between the two sides. It’s not good because it leads to misunderstandings and a lack of communication on important issues.

GT: Under what circumstances do you think China and the US will enter a new period of more balanced stability?

Westad: To me, the key issues are the security issues. For example, the situation in the Taiwan Straits is important. I have proposed, while I have been here in Beijing, something I call the Shanghai Plus, which is based on the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972 and the additions for the Chinese statement that came on and so on.

So what Shanghai Plus would actually mean is that you understand that it could under no circumstance support Taiwan independence. I think some people in the US could be interested in this.

If you can deal with this and in some other issues in which China and the US play a positive role, it will help bilateral relations get to a relatively stable stage. For instance, if you look at the Ukraine crisis, it is a significant factor in the relationship between the US and China. It is necessary to achieve at least a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine. I believe China can play a significant role. I believe that, to a certain extent, the US and China actually have a common interest in seeing a reduction in the conflict.

While the US and China may not become awesome friends over the next generation, it is important for both countries to work together on security issues to prevent escalation, and it’s also possible for both sides to work together.

 

A view of Shanghai Photo: VCG

A view of Shanghai Photo: VCG

 GT: What’s your stance on if there will be or if we are already in the new Cold War between Russia and the West?

Westad: One of the many reasons why war should be avoided is that the outcomes are always unpredictable. I think at the moment, the risk of a bigger war breaking out in Ukraine is quite limited.

I don’t think the current situation has anything to do with the Cold War. It is a conflict between countries. Russia is no longer a global superpower as the Soviet Union. It has become more limited in terms of its global influence. Conomically, Russia is struggling, and it is unlikely to see significant improvement in the near future.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what kind of relationship Russia will have with the US once the war is over. I think that even if there is a ceasefire, the sanctions are likely to remain in place. For Russia, this means that it will not be able to get closer to Europe, even in a regional or economic sense.

GT: From a historical perspective, what do you think are the long-term changes to the international order brought about by the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

Westad: I think it is a defining conflict in many ways. The consequences of it will be long-lasting, and it marks the end of the post-Cold War era. That period has lasted a generation, but we don’t quite know what’s going to replace it.

One of the most significant structural changes is the increasing military and strategic integration between Europe and the US. The neutral countries in Europe are not giving up their neutrality, but they may become more aligned with the West.

New York, the US Photo: IC

New York, the US Photo: IC

GT: In your last interview with the Global Times four years ago, you mentioned that the global pandemic would strengthen the political and social process that were already underway, such as the shift of power and influence from the West to the East. Do you still believe the process of power shifting from the West to the East is ongoing?

Westad: I still believe it, although I never thought that this was just about China. I think China is a part of it. It’s a difficult task for the Chinese government to move to higher growth in an economy that is already so big. So, in that sense, if they’re not going to stay at 5 percent, even 4 percent, or maybe even 3.5 percent economic growth, that’s pretty good.

China, in many ways, was a pioneer of this, just like Japan was a pioneer in an earlier generation. And then it is spreading elsewhere, this is quite natural. It may be in Southeast Asia in the future. This is how development progresses.

I think the European economy is probably on a platform roughly where it is now. I don’t see it as very energetic, but it doesn’t have to be because Europe is already rich. They can sustain themselves, and even if they experience a smaller percentage of economic growth, it is still sustainable. I think the US, among the developed countries, is probably the place that has the best chance of reasonable economic growth. But that also depends on their policies; if they choose to involve themselves in a trade war with China, much of the economic basis for American growth will also disappear.

It is striking that last year is the first year in human history in which there is no natural population growth outside of Africa. Every single country outside of African countries has falling birth rates, sometimes at a fairly high level. The population increase is going down. Only in Africa is it actually expanding at a high rate. This has enormous demographic consequences when we move to a generation cohort, where most young people in the world will be in Africa.

Some time ago, we saw that as a massive problem, but now it’s a massive opportunity. Young people have the potential to staff the factories and industries and drive productive growth in the future. Some of my American friends are saying all these countries are so backward and they have to get their policies in order. My response to this is always that, because with these points of opportunities, people will make use of it, just like in China. Why did China succeed? It had sensible economic policies and a young, hungry population who wanted to make better lives for themselves.

GT: Do you think peace and development are still the theme of our era and world?

Westad: Development, for sure. Peace is a little bit harder, but I don’t think the rules that we have in place are impossible to settle. They’re not the kind of rules that I would expect to lead to greater competition. Maybe it’s possible to be a bit more optimistic.

I think, at least for now, stabilizing the crisis in Ukraine would be a significant step. I also think that because it would show the great powers may be able to cooperate on some of these issues.