Commentary: US always needed a foil. It just happens to be China


Some observers have welcomed the new rivalry, believing that it will give the West a well-defined common purpose. The “Sputnik moment”, after all, motivated the US government to invest in infrastructure, education and new technologies.

A similar mission for public policy today might yield many benefits; indeed, the Biden administration has already begun to frame US investment priorities in terms of the Sino-American rivalry.

It is true that many of the West’s Cold War-era success stories depended on the Soviet Union serving as a foil. Western Europe’s model of social democracy was viewed as a palatable alternative to Soviet-style authoritarian socialism.

Similarly, market-driven growth in South Korea and Taiwan owes much to the threat of communism, which forced governments to eschew overt repression, undertake land reforms, and invest in education.

And yet, the potential benefits of a new Sputnik moment are probably far outweighed by the costs of decoupling. In today’s interdependent world, global cooperation is fundamental.

The rivalry with China, though essential to the defense of democracy around the world, is not the West’s sole priority. Climate change also poses a civilisational threat, and it will require close China-US collaboration.

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Author: Shirley