There have been positive signals that bilateral conversations will continue between China and the U.S. in efforts to ease tensions, following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to Beijing.With relations at one of the lowest points in history, even a hint of conflict aversion is welcome news across the globe.
Sino-American relations plummeted during the Trump presidency and have continued to slide downward since. It started with the imposition of American duties on several Chinese products and China retaliating tit for tat. But in recent months, their tiff has gone beyond verbal sparring, trade, sanctions or semiconductor supplies, and has extended dangerously into security and strategic issues.
It is now a battle for influence over policy choices made by regional states and countries far beyond, and Asia-Pacific countries caught between the two superpowers do not want to be forced to choose between them.
Currently, the greatest chance of conflict between China and the U.S. would be over Taiwan, which the U.S., despite paying lip-service to the ‘one China policy,’ continues to arm, enabling it to retain its autonomous status from Beijing.
For China, there is no compromise regarding Taiwan. The readout of the Chinese statement issued after Blinken met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi reaffirmed that "China has no room to compromise or concede." The statement demanded that the U.S. must "respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and clearly oppose "Taiwan independence." Foreign Minister Qin Gang equally emphasized Taiwan during his over seven hours of conversation with Blinken, which continues to highlight that policy differences on Taiwan are at the core of their friction.
When it comes to extending outreach to other countries, China and the U.S. are implementing completely different strategies. The U.S. is primarily focused on military alliances, like the Quad (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) and AUKUS (Australia, UK and U.S.), which is introducing nuclear technology in the region. In addition, Chinese leaders are increasingly concerned about Washington’s recent military deal with the Philippines allowing for additional base facilities, along with U.S. attempts to nudge Japan and South Korea into more active military roles. And in the wake of all this militarization, China has declared several times that it will go to war if the current status of Taiwan is altered unilaterally. With the increased military presence and activity in the region, the risk of miscalculation or an accidental military incident have increased manifold.
China, in contrast, is following the path of economic engagement. We see this their ongoing Belt and Road Initiative, the launch of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - the largest trade deal in history, and Beijing’s formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the U.S. withdrew from under the Trump administration. Additionally, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a Chinese initiative, along with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). On the contrary, the U.S., which is deeply in debt, has little gumption or capacity for economic engagement.
Polarization in the American political system now poses a major challenge in seeking rapprochement with China as well. With the election year quickly approaching, the Republican Party leadership is on the attack, accusing President Biden of appeasement towards China, when Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing was merely to keep the channels of communication open. Depending on the results of the polls, this continued Republican vitriol may tempt the Biden administration “to show he can stand up to Xi rather than alongside him,” says Ms. Bonnie Glaser, managing director of German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific Program.
Though Blinken’s two-day visit appeared to stabilize the intense rivalry between the two nations, there are no indications of a breakthrough in any of their areas of disagreement. Both say that they want to reduce friction but refuse to budge on their strategic assessments. For now, it appears to only be a temporary thaw.
As China has matured into a formidable economic powerhouse with a parallel stride in military posture, the U.S. has come to believe that China’s rise comes at the cost of its position as the world’s dominant power. America therefore believes that China’s ambitions must be contained before any perceived threat from China increases. China, on the contrary, believes that “American antipathy stems from a desire to protect its status as global hegemon,” said Peter Mendelson, a former European Trade Commissioner. Europe, he adds, with its relations with the U.S. and historic “understanding of China, [can]play a greater role in breaking the deadlock.” A clearer and independent European stance would help rein in American enterprise in the Pacific and beyond.
American antipathy towards China was again on display at the recent ‘Shangri-La Dialogue’-where defense and security chiefs from across the globe gathered. In its 20th year, we saw the same ‘China bashing’ exercises that I recall witnessing during the conferences early years. The American Secretary of Defense, the first speaker, laid out a string of charges against China to shape the discussions, to which China’s lead delegate responded on the last day with counter-charges against the U.S. “The two (China and the U.S.) were talking at each other, not with each other” described Ravi Agarwal, the executive editor of the Foreign Policy journal.
Though competition between the U.S. and China will remain, the U.S. should follow the ‘one China policy’ in both words and actions. Even more, Washington could offer a ‘grand bargain’ where the U.S. lets the matter of Taiwan be handled by Beijing and Taipei, in exchange for unhindered freedom of civilian navigation for the U.S. and others in the South China Sea. China could then accommodate some of the interests of other claimant states in the South China Sea, thus dissuading them from seeking U.S. military presence in the region. Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of global security and all of mankind for China and the U.S. to seek compromise and avoid conflict.