Is a new cold war between the USA and China now more likely with Joe Biden in the White House?

An absence of ideological universalism means that China-US relations have so far managed to escape a Cold War situation, writes Ruairidh Brown. With Biden’s promise of a value-centred American Foreign Policy, this could be about to change

A key component of the Cold War was both sides’ claims to holding a universal ideology: the USSR’s Marxist-Leninism promised revolution on a global scale, while the USA promoted liberal capitalism. Current US-China relations, though often heated, have so far lacked this dimension of global ideological struggle.

Xi Jinping thought

In recent years, Xi Jinping has risen to an undisputed position of power in China arguably equal to that of Mao Zedong. Xi’s politics do indeed mirror Mao’s in many ways, including the nurturing of a personality cult and the underpinning of Xi Jinping thought in Marxist philosophy.

However, unlike Mao, who regarded himself as leading a world revolution and whose militant ideas drove many Cold War anxieties, Xi’s Marxist vision is more explicitly contained within China’s borders. In his landmark speech to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Conference, Xi stressed the exclusively Chinese qualities and aspirations of his brand of Marxism. Shunning ideological universalism, he declared that each country should follow its own path and reject Cold War competitions over ideology.

China’s ‘victory’ over the virus has been heralded as a victory for Xi Jinping thought

Xi’s Marxism has been given a notable boost by the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s ‘victory’ over the virus has been heralded as a victory for Xi Jinping thought. This has led to claims by state media that Xi’s thought will ‘enlighten the world’. Nevertheless, most of the focus has been domestic; framing the pandemic as a hurdle to China’s revival and success used as vindication for both Xi’s leadership and the correctness of the State’s Marxist ideology.

Xi’s approach thus entrenches Marxism at home while promoting harmony on the international stage.

These spheres, nonetheless, do not always remain distinct. China’s Marxism has, at times, bled into international relations. Most notably an anti-imperialist narrative has surfaced when China feels threatened by the West. During the Hong Kong crisis, Chinese officials repeatedly accused the UK of having a colonial mindset. And China did not take kindly to Trump’s ‘China Virus’ labelling of the pandemic, claiming it was indicative of the West’s desire to always blame China’s Communist Party.

America First

The prominence of Marxism in contemporary China has caused concern in Washington. Nonetheless, with former president Trump’s opposition to liberalism and promotion of a more pragmatic, mercantile ‘America First’ agenda, conflict has rarely focused on matters of ideology.

Trump was reluctant to cast Xi as an ‘enemy’, tending rather to stress respect and even friendship towards the Chinese strongman. Even when many Americans were criticising China’s Covid-19 response in early 2020, Trump remained confident in Xi’s leadership. As late as 26 February 2020, Trump was steadfast in his defence of Xi, despite journalists explicitly questioning his trust in a communist regime.

Reportedly, Trump was reluctant to criticise China in case it endangered the ‘deal’ he had recently struck with Xi. Herein lies the secret to Trump’s relationship with China: he needed Xi to be the strong foreign leader whom only a tough and shrewd businessman, like himself, could ‘make a deal’ with.

Trump needed Xi to be the strong foreign leader whom only a tough and shrewd businessman, like himself, could ‘make a deal’ with

Trump would labour this point in his 2020 election campaign. Xi, like Putin and Kim Jong-un, were ‘100%’ ‘smart’ men. How could ‘Joe’, who even in his best days ‘wasn’t a smart man’, possibly compete? Trump’s claims to legitimacy lay in his professed ability to make deals with the toughest leaders who strutted the world stage. This was something he asserted his opponents, like ‘sleepy Joe’, could never hope to do; China takes advantage of ‘stupid people’, and ‘Biden is a stupid person’.

In such a narrative Xi the evil communist was no good to Trump. He needed a Xi who was ‘tough’, but who one could still ‘make a deal with’ – if one was a strong and shrewd businessman like Trump, of course.

Biden and the return to universal liberalism

Biden was more consistently critical of Xi’s regime during the pandemic, in a strategy described as ‘out-toughing’ Trump on China. During the 2020 election campaign Biden would criticise Trump for his praise of Xi’s leadership. In a campaign video posted to Biden’s Facebook, notably anti-Beijing in tone, Biden even claimed he would have insisted on American experts being placed inside China to guarantee transparency.

This ‘tough’ stance on China appears likely to continue now Biden is in Office, the new President promising to hold the communist State accountable for Human Rights violations and to defend Taiwan. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominated Ambassador to the UN, has described communist China as a threat to American security and values. Biden has also chosen Laura Rosenberger, an expert on China coronavirus disinformation, as senior director on China issues in his National Security Team. In April 2020 Rosenberger wrote that China was not only supressing information about the virus, but was also ‘engaged in covert efforts to manipulate information and sow chaos’.

If China feels threatened by US liberal universalism, a Marxist anti-imperialist counternarrative will rise to meet it, immersing disputes between countries in an ideological battle

While some of these ‘tough stances’ continue the Trump line on China, the Biden administration tone is noticeably different. Rather than trade and economic competition, its focus is on issues like Human Rights abuses and conflicting values. This reflects Biden’s promise to return American Foreign Policy to its commitment to universal liberal values, values which separate the USA from China.

When pressed in such a manner, China will likely respond with anti-imperialist rhetoric. If China feels threatened by US liberal universalism, a Marxist anti-imperialist counternarrative will rise to meet it, immersing disputes between countries in an ideological battle.

Biden’s ‘tough stance’, when coupled with a return to universal values, clearly risks injecting an ideological universalism into US-China relations that was absent in the age of Trump. Biden’s principled, value-orientated liberal politics could well tip the US into a new Cold War with China.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

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