Washington Already Fought a Cold War with Beijing. It Was a Disaster

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President Biden in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, a debate within the U.S. foreign policy community has reignited over how far Washington would go to defend Taiwan if China launched a similar assault on the island. These questions acquired a new level of urgency last month when President Joe Biden seemed to suggest he would use military force to protect Taiwan if Beijing ever decided to attack it.

Although Biden administration officials quickly clarified the United States had not abandoned its historic policy of "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan's defense, the president's comments came only days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech outlining Washington's approach to China: Beijing is the greatest challenger to the American-led international order, and its global behavior must be constrained through shaping the "strategic environment" around it.

Despite U.S. officials insisting they don't want a "new Cold War," the Biden team is making a mistake in applying the Cold War-era U.S. strategy of containment as a means of managing its increasingly hostile relationship with China. Indeed, Washington already fought a cold war once with Beijing while engaging in superpower competition with Moscow -- it was a catastrophe not only for American foreign policy but also for all of East Asia.

During the first 25 or so years of the Cold War, Asia represented a blood-soaked albatross for U.S. policymakers.

Months after his domestic critics accused him of "losing China" to leader Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Harry Truman authorized a military intervention on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 to halt North Korea's invasion of its southern neighbor. "If we were to let Asia go," he warned after Pyongyang's forces attacked, "the Near East would collapse and no telling what would happen in Europe."

This early formulation of the "domino theory," which Truman cited to justify U.S. involvement, helped transform the Cold War from a political and economic competition into a militarized confrontation that led to a series of fiascoes in Asia.

Washington's early victories in reversing North Korea's invasion triggered Chinese intervention in the Korean conflict, leading to a costly stalemate. By the time a cease-fire was reached in July 1953, there were an estimated 5 million casualties, including 2 million to 3 million civilians. South Korea had been saved, but Mao's China exacted a terrible cost.

At two points during the 1950s, U.S. officials found themselves on the nuclear brink when Mao attacked Taiwanese-held islands off the coast of mainland China. Looking to avoid using American ground forces, the Eisenhower administration threatened atomic retaliation to defend Taiwan. Beijing ultimately relented both times, but the crises convinced Chinese policymakers to build their own nuclear deterrent, raising the stakes in a volatile region.

The U.S. soon found itself sucked into another ferocious quagmire in Indochina. France's inability to quell a communist insurgency there pushed Washington to deeply engage, first by aiding Paris' military campaigns and then by deploying American troops in what became known as the Vietnam War. Covertly assisted by Beijing, North Vietnam consistently frustrated U.S. efforts to defeat it, leading to an approximate 3 million deaths. By the war's end, American leaders had achieved none of their objectives, and the CCP scored a significant victory in pushing U.S. forces out of Vietnam.

Across Southeast Asia, Chinese-U.S. competition caused significant destruction and violence. In Indonesia, Washington abetted a wave of mass killings of suspected communist sympathizers that led to roughly 500,000 deaths and decades of authoritarian rule. In neighboring Malaysia, U.S. officials supported counterinsurgency campaigns against Beijing-sponsored communist revolutionaries that resulted in two decades of civil war. Fears of CCP influence spreading produced a succession of American misadventures in the Pacific that hardly advanced U.S. goals.

As U.S.-China relations further decline to lows not seen in decades, America's previous cold war with China should give policymakers pause. Washington's past attempt to contain Beijing in East Asia accomplished little and precipitated wanton regional devastation and ruin. This all occurred while China was a low-income nation with hundreds of millions living in poverty.

After decades of setbacks, an earlier generation of U.S. cold warriors finally learned a militarized approach to China would only continue to end in failure. With China currently rising as a peer competitor and expanding its nuclear arsenal, the risks of miscalculation are even more fraught than before.

On its current trajectory, Chinese-U.S. great power competition in the Pacific will leave the region less secure and more prone to instability and conflict. Biden's increasingly hawkish advisers must realize the Cold War is not a recipe for success but a formula for disaster.

The 21st century requires a fresh framework for tackling an unstable world -- comprehensive diplomacy and cooperation are a good place to start.

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(Grant Golub is a contributing fellow at Defense Priorities and an Ernest May Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.)

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