We are always trying to make sense of the present by reaching into the past. Not so long ago fashionable commentary on the rivalry between the US and China summoned up a sage of ancient Greece. The Athenian historian Thucydides predicted inevitable conflict between an established hegemon and rising power. Now, the favoured parallel for the Sino-American confrontation is the West’s fight against Soviet communism. But neat as it may seem, that analogy is more confusing than illuminating.

The Cold War drum is being beaten most loudly by Donald Trump’s US administration. It is easy to see why. Trump thinks his belligerent stance towards Beijing is worth votes in November’s presidential election. Not so long ago he was boasting about striking a trade deal with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Now, as it condemns Beijing on every front, the Trump White House wants to rally US allies to the cause. How better to do so than to draw a comparison with the West’s resolve to defeat Soviet com...

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