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The China Challenge: Lessons from the Cold War


Published May 3, 2023

The ongoing competition between the United States and China is reminiscent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As China’s expanding global ambitions raise concerns, historical lessons from the Soviet challenge—recognizing the global battle of ideas, blending force and diplomacy, and making difficult trade-offs—can be applied to addressing China’s growing power, securing American interests, and promoting a freer and more peaceful world.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the United States have an obligation to defend Taiwan? Why or why not?
  2. Is war inevitable with China? Why or why not?

Additional Resources: 

  • Read “Ronald Reagan’s Lessons for the China Challenge,” by Peter Berkowitz via RealClear Politics. Available here.
  • Watch “China's Expansion into the South China Sea with Michael Auslin,” on PolicyEd. Available here.
  • Watch “The Dilemma of China’s Digital Currency,” with Glenn Tiffert on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

Much as it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States is in a global competition with a major authoritarian party led by a communist party. While China and the Soviet Union differ in important respects, the United States can draw on historical lessons from the Soviet challenge in responding to China’s expanding global ambitions.

First, the U.S. must recognize, as Reagan did in the Cold War, that the China challenge involves a global battle of ideas. The U.S. must demonstrate that its interests are consistent with its founding principles and a freer and more democratic world. 

China, meanwhile, will continue to use its enormous commercial might and the lure of its vast consumer markets to snare other countries into relationships of dependence and subservience. 

Second, the U.S. must pursue “peace through strength,” blending force and diplomacy, hard and soft power, pressure and outreach. As China continues to threaten an invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. and its allies in the region should work together to deter the use of force.

Lastly, the U.S. must operate, as did Reagan’s team, with the ever-present awareness that geopolitics typically entails painful tradeoffs, tragic choices, and alternatives ranging from bad to dreadful. The guiding question for American diplomats should always be which of the imperfect options best secures U.S. freedom and prosperity.

Following these lessons will lead to a freer and more peaceful world.