In Confronting Beijing, Let's Not Hold Ourselves Prisoner to the Cold War | Opinion

China's efforts to withhold critically important, time-sensitive information about COVID-19 and its recent provocations in Hong Kong and the South China Sea have gripped Washington in recent weeks, spurring talk of a new Cold War.

By assuming fundamental similarities between today's tensions and our conflict with the Soviet Union, however, we run the risk of entering this next chapter with an outdated mindset and little more than a counterterrorism toolkit. What's more, our over-eagerness to apply a carbon copy standard to the Indo-Pacific region risks blinding us to the novelty of the Chinese threat—as well as the need to modernize our ineffectual national security apparatus in preparation for this generation's coming clash with China.

For starters, the Cold War in its latter decades was waged against an adversary of questionable military might, not to mention one removed from global supply chains and the broader economy at-large. While the fight for ideological dominance was also a hallmark of the Cold War, on nearly every other level, China is a more capable competitor. In some respects, such as developing next-generation technology, the United States might even be considered the underdog, as China has leapfrogged the West and continues to invest heavily in R&D. Moreover, Chinese hardliners appear to have little interest in biding their time and slowly building up their capabilities. In fact, just the opposite—Beijing's wolf warriors appear to be itching for a fight.

After nearly two decades of conflict in the Middle East, the war-weary American public is finally recognizing the gravity of the situation. Still, it is important to remember that while the Chinese have been preparing for this moment for years, the United States has been combating terrorism and confronting other rogue states. What's more, in potentially taking Beijing's rhetorical Cold War bait, we risk validating Chinese—and to some extent, Russian—messaging that the United States is little more than a fading hegemon lurching from one war to next.

For too long now, the United States has demonstrated its resolve through military means, allowing key aspects of our diplomatic, intelligence and economic toolkits to atrophy. While a military deterrent will almost certainly be a key component of a successful China strategy, our current emphasis on a military pivot alone is almost certain to fail. Furthermore, a significant and growing trust deficit between the public and private sectors, wasteful government spending and prioritizing whole-of-government consensus at the expense of action have further weakened our resolve and jeopardized our ability to wage a great-power campaign in real-time.

In recognizing the contours of our current conflict and reframing the discussion around it, we would be wise to look beyond the Cold War for inspiration and instead recognize the underlying American qualities that have proven invaluable during other intrepid moments in our past.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Our greatest instruments of power have not always been tanks, ships or planes, but rather bold leaders who relied on their wits to outsmart our adversaries. It has been members of both political parties, working in coordination with the private sector, academia and everyday citizens that has ultimately carried the day. Within the government itself, empowered leaders were once incentivized to assert the maximum extent of their authorities in the pursuit of big, audacious ideas, all while pushing decision-making down to the lowest possible level.

Of course, there have been missteps, missed opportunities and misfires. At the same time, we once found ourselves willing to embrace out-of-the box ideas, asymmetric warfare doctrine, denial and deception operations and a tolerance for diplomatic and economic risk that would bedevil even the most audacious leader today.

To that end, the national security structure largely put into place during the Cold War requires complete restructuring to prepare for the complex challenges ahead. We must rethink how we train and deploy America's soft-power capabilities, seek to eliminate bureaucratic micro-management, expeditiously foster greater public-private partnership and make tough decisions about how to best respond to our melees with China while recognizing that our two economies remain intertwined. As the general public adjusts to our new normal with Beijing, and if recent history is any guide, we also have a responsibility to ensure that law-abiding Asian-Americans do not find themselves in the crosshairs of rising anti-Asian sentiment.

The question we face, as a country, is whether we are capable of harnessing the needed resolve to undermine Beijing's confidence to the point that China reconsiders its dangerous path. Before we can do that though, we need to get our own house in order and forge the consensus needed for the coming clash with China. Doing so will require that we refrain from taking cues from Beijing and instead exercise patience and prudence. As Sun Tzu famously said, "If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril."

The rest will, of course, be history.

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat who currently serves as an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies for its China Program.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.