What’s truly different, and the necessary additional element that explains the “new cold war” that may be aborning, is the sheer scope of Chinese power. China has now grown sufficiently potent for it to reasonably expect to be able to shape the international order to its liking, and not merely thrive within it as it exists. That expectation would be alarming to the United States even if China were not increasingly repressive, and even if America had not allowed itself to be vulnerable to supply chain disruption.
Consider the situation in Hong Kong. Imagine that China, instead of using a hammer on all visible nails, used softer tactics to woo Hong Kong’s citizens over to a more complaisant stance, as it had been doing for years prior. Suppose, similarly, that rather than bullying Taiwan, Beijing put the bulk of its efforts into corrupting the island’s political system — as, again, it has to some extent done. Suppose these efforts began to bear fruit, to the point that Taipei began to distance itself from Washington in an effort to avoid angering Beijing, and the prospect of reunification was in the air. Suppose that South Korea followed suit. Would the United States view these events with equanimity?
Of course not. They would be obvious signs of dramatically weakened American clout in Asia. Moreover, they would materially weaken our military position in the case of a future confrontation with China. And that possibility could never be ruled out, even if China’s regime at that moment were less-confrontational.