For one thing, China is so inferior to the United States in nuclear weaponry that any confrontation is much more likely to occur in cyberspace, or in space itself, than with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The People’s Republic does not have the same approach to global expansionism as the Soviet Union either. Chinese money goes into infrastructure projects and politicians’ pockets, not foreign guerrilla movements. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature overseas investment program — does not aim for world revolution.
If Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems — one democratic, the other not — its benefits could very well outweigh its costs. After all, the economic spinoff from research and development operations associated with the original Cold War were part of the reason American growth was so strong in the 1950s and 1960s.
Back then, there was also a political benefit. Once the spasm of McCarthyism had passed, as Americans came to a consensus that they all faced a common foe, domestic divisions decreased notably. It is telling that one of the biggest sources of political and social strife in the Cold War era was a war against communism that the United States failed to win — against Vietnam.
If Americans are now waking up to a new external enemy, might it not reduce the notorious internal polarization of recent times, which we can see in the decline of bipartisanship in Congress as well as in the vehemence of discourse on social media? It is possible.
Maybe the notion of an external enemy could persuade politicians in the United States to devote serious resources to the development of new technologies, such as quantum computing. Evidence of Chinese espionage and influence operations in American academia and Silicon Valley is already pushing the government to reprioritize national security in research and development. It would be nothing short of disastrous if China won the race for quantum supremacy, which could render all conventional computer encryption obsolete.
The one big risk with Cold War II would be to assume confidently that the United States is bound to win it. That is a misreading of both the first Cold War and the present situation. In 1969, an American victory over the communist enemy seemed far from inevitable. Nor was it a foregone conclusion that the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would be so free of bloodshed.
Moreover, China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did. Historical estimates of gross domestic product show that at no point during the Cold War was the Soviet economy larger than 44 percent of the economy of the United States. China has already surpassed America by at least one measure since 2014: G.D.P. based on purchasing power parity, which adjusts for the fact that the cost of living is lower in China. The Soviet Union could never draw on the resources of a dynamic private sector. China can. In some markets — notably financial technology — China is already ahead of the United States.