The greatest existential threat facing the United States today is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), led and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether politicians and pundits in Washington care to acknowledge it or not, the United States is in a new Cold War with the PRC, an adversary even more capable and dangerous than the Soviet Union was at the height of its power.
The reason for this is twofold.
First, during the Cold War, the United States was able to assemble a robust international coalition of nations that were committed to containing and defeating the Soviet Union. No such coalition exists today: The West is fractured on how to confront China and how to eliminate the growing threat from the CCP.
Second, the United States and its allies effectively severed their economic ties to the Soviet Union. The use of economic warfare coupled with American soft power proved to be essential in the collapse of the USSR in 1991. With China now the largest trading partner for many international capitals, the U.S. cannot rely on the free world to economically isolate the PRC the same way it did with the USSR.
Somewhere along the way, the U.S. government forgot the lessons of the last Cold War even as China grew more belligerent and leveraged access to American financing and technology to fuel its rise economically and militarily.
Instead of adapting to the threat, multiple Administrations pursued closer engagement with the PRC, all assuming that they could guide China on a path to greater economic openness and, ultimately, more political freedom. That gambit failed disastrously. Under General Secretary Xi Jinping, the PRC has grown more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.
America’s engagement strategy, fueled by trade and manufacturing policies that empowered the CCP, have left the U.S. dependent on the Chinese economy. Critical supply chains, from vital rare-earth elements to key pharmaceutical products, remain largely or wholly dependent on the PRC. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how much of the U.S. economy is reliant on the PRC for essential goods and services.
Even worse, the failed engagement strategy left the American people exposed to a wide range of malicious CCP activities here on American soil. The PRC has established a presence on U.S. college campuses and operates secret police stations in American cities. Popular Chinese social media apps transmit the data of millions of American citizens back to China while Chinese surveillance drones are “donated” to fire and police departments in the U.S.
Decades of systemic, unprecedented corporate espionage by the PRC have bled the U.S. economy of trillions of dollars in intellectual property theft. PRC hackers have compromised the sensitive personal data of tens of millions of Americans.
Chinese “friendship associations” and agents of the United Front Work Department peddle influence in Washington and Wall Street alongside CCP-funded lobbyists and consulting firms. Meanwhile, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids largely sourced from China contributed to a nationwide drug epidemic and were responsible for more than 70,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2021.
These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the nefarious ways in which the CCP mixes statecraft with economic policy: China’s national security laws effectively make every Chinese company and entity subject to the whims, and intelligence requests, of the CCP. Meanwhile, ostensibly “American” businesses, especially Big Tech companies, seem happy to sacrifice the privacy, jobs, and security of everyday Americans for greater access to Chinese markets.
In the pursuit of Chinese financing and Chinese students paying full tuition, American universities skirted their own responsibilities to ensure that the campus is a safe place for open academic debate free from the influence of foreign adversaries. In pursuit of profits, Hollywood and major sports leagues, such as the National Basketball Association, censor voices critical of China’s lamentable human rights record. Following years of controversial scientific cooperation with their Chinese counterparts, U.S. public health experts blunt efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and hold China accountable for its role in the pandemic.
Inside China, the space for academic, religious, economic, and political freedom has evaporated. The CCP’s genocide of China’s Uyghur minority and mistreatment of Christians, Tibetans, Hong Kong residents, and any form of political dissident has grown more systematic, and the police state, more draconian. Access to open markets did not lead China to economic and political freedom. It empowered the police state and enhanced the CCP’s grip over the economy.
Abroad, the PRC is increasingly determined to establish hegemony, supplant U.S. leadership, and intimidate its Indo–Pacific neighbors into submission. It is conducting mock blockades of Taiwan, clashing with Indian troops in the Himalayas, and sending fighter jets to probe Japanese airspace. It has launched economic coercion campaigns against South Korea and Australia while taking Canadian citizens hostage as political prisoners. It is backing Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine and keeping the rogue North Korean regime afloat.
The PRC lays claim to the entire South China Sea—and with it some of the world’s most important sea lanes of trade—where it has militarized new artificial islands and deployed a maritime militia to bully its neighbors. It has harassed U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels operating legally in international waters in an ongoing series of dangerous encounters. And, most recently, a Chinese spy balloon penetrated American airspace and crossed over sensitive military installations as it traversed the continental U.S.
These are not imagined sleights. This is the behavior of an adversary, not a competitor. A course correction is long overdue. To date, the U.S. government’s response has been inadequate.
It is time to acknowledge reality: The United States is in a New Cold War with the PRC. It is past time for a plan—for a whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort—that serves American interests and protects the American people and economy from malicious actions by the CCP. The Heritage Foundation’s “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China,” a major research collaboration reflecting inputs by more than two dozen foreign policy, legal, military, economic, and energy experts from Heritage and other organizations, does just that. This is not the end of our work to combat the CCP threat, but the beginning.
Kevin Roberts, PhD, is President of The Heritage Foundation.