China's leaders have a case of Cold War nostalgia

“Mad Men” may be over, but no one told Xi Jinping. China’s decision to put multiple warheads into its intercontinental ballistic missiles, an approach traditionally associated with a first-strike threat, is projecting China’s stance back into a Cold War mindset.

The development is symbolically significant, because China has had multiple warhead technology, known as MIRV, for years, but has never before chosen to deploy it. The decision puts the U.S. on notice that China won’t react passively to increasing containment efforts in the Pacific. And it also tells a domestic audience that President Xi’s vision of the “Chinese dream” isn’t simply economic but also deeply nationalistic and even militaristic.

It’s not news that China has been taking an increasingly confrontational stance in the East and South China seas, staking claims to rocky, uninhabited islands and projecting naval force. What’s remarkable about the warhead deployment is that it isn’t primarily directed at China’s Pacific neighbors, who don’t have their own nuclear weapons – it’s directed at the U.S.

At a micro level, China is making another move in an iterated game. The Americans moved to support Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his expansion of Japan’s defense forces. The Chinese then moved with the announcement of joint naval maneuvers with Russia in the Mediterranean.

At a higher level, China is responding to the perception among its foreign policy thinkers that the U.S. seeks to contain China, limiting its rise and keeping it as a regional power rather than a great world power. In practice, recent U.S. efforts at containment have been a little anemic. President Barack Obama’s much heralded “pivot” to Asia turned out not to involve significant augmentation of naval forces in the Pacific Ocean. And, of course, Obama has publicly maintained that he’s not even aiming at containment – a rhetorical position that reflects a desire not to antagonize the Chinese.

But at the broadest geostrategic level, China’s warhead deployment is meant to emphasize that China intends to become a genuine global power alongside the U.S. That means acting in ways that global powers stereotypically acted the last time there were two of them – which was the Cold War. In this sense, China really is consciously trying to conjure up the era of bomb shelters and cocktails that American pop culture treats as pure nostalgia.

China doesn’t want to waste money in a pointless arms race, as the Soviet Union did. But it has been growing its military budget at 9.5 percent annually over the last decade, according to the Pentagon. At first, the budgetary growth was keeping pace with China’s extraordinary economic output. But the military budget has continued to rise even as China’s economic growth has slowed.

Why should China, which until quite recently liked to herald its “peaceful rise,” be taking steps that it fully intends to be understood as assertions of military power? The answer is based both in strategic logic and in the domestic policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s foreign policy elites increasingly recognize that the nation’s tremendous economic growth makes it a rising power that will inevitably threaten American global hegemony. Under the logic of strategy, it doesn’t matter to U.S. analysts whether China actually intends to be a great power. The capacity to become one is sufficient to trigger a counterstrategy of containment. As a result, from the Chinese perspective, it makes no sense to try to project a purely peaceful rise – because the strategists on the other side won’t believe it, anyway.

The zero-sum logic of strategic confrontation is taken straight from the Cold War textbook. What mitigates it – to a degree – is the different reality of the contemporary cool war. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia barely traded with each other. Yet China and the U.S. are economically interdependent.

That’s what makes the cool war different from the Cold War: Geostrategic conflict between the two powers is occurring simultaneously with deep economic cooperation. That’s why Japan can be simultaneously arming itself against China and deepening its trade ties. Indeed, even Taiwan, existentially threatened by Chinese power, is deepening its economic relationship with the mainland.

Domestically, China’s interests also point in the direction of some rhetorical confrontation with the U.S. For several decades, the Chinese Communist Party has achieved legitimacy by delivering economic growth. As that growth slows, as it inevitably must, new sources of legitimacy are needed.

Xi’s Chinese dream is a bold effort that goes beyond mere economic growth. The dream is not only of greater wealth, but also of international recognition of China’s historic significance. Put bluntly, the Chinese dream is a dream of national greatness. The Chinese Communist Party under Xi is turning to nationalism as a source of legitimacy – and it’s a source that will become more important as Chinese growth slows.

Nationalist legitimation requires headlines that give the public the experience that their nation-state matters. Deploying multiple warheads, an act that will be noticed worldwide and that will then come to the attention of the Chinese public through the dynamics of global response, is a fantastic example of brilliant nationalism. We can expect more of it in the future. The message to the U.S. is simple: Don’t throw out your bar cart – or your bombs.

Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and the author of six books, most recently “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”