In early-July, U.S. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen became the second cabinet-level U.S. official to visit Beijing amid growing speculations of a potential thaw between the two superpowers. The trip was meant to help “responsibly manage our relationship, communicate directly about areas of concern, and work together to address global challenges.”
The U.S. treasury chief’s visit came just weeks after the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken became the first top-level American official to visit the Asian superpower in half-a-decade. Both trips were less about bringing about ‘diplomatic breakthroughs’ than they were meant to arrest the downward spiral in Sino-American relations since last year, which was exacerbated by the controversial visit of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
The ultimate aim of the two trips was to ensure a “healthy” relationship, part competition and part cooperation, between the U.S. and China. More concretely, the two sides also have hoped to rejuvenate strained channels of communications, at least at the lower levels of bureaucracy. Encouragingly, U.S. President Joseph Biden is also expected to meet his counterpart, Xi Jinping, during the major summits later this year, namely the G20 Summit in India and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement (APEC) Summit in the United States.
Nevertheless, Asia remains a tinderbox, since the two superpowers are still divided by fundamental differences. In particular, China is troubled by the Biden administration’s dual-containment strategy, namely economic “derisking,” which denotes reshoring of critical industries away from China’s factories, and ‘integrated deterrence,’ which pertains to expanding the Pentagon’s networks of bases and maritime security cooperation against a rising China.
Southeast Asian Anxieties
In regions such as Southeast Asia, concerns about the direction of U.S.-China relations is not a matter of abstract strategic discourse. As a new theatre of great power competition which contains bodies of contested waters in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia is now a de facto geopolitical frontier.
Perhaps no country better exemplifies growing anxieties over the future of U.S.-China competition than the Philippines, where there are intense debates among the political elites over foreign policy issues. Most recently, no less than former President Rodrigo Duterte – whose daughter, Sara, is the current vice-president – openly warned of a potential nuclear showdown among superpowers, which would reduce his country into a ‘graveyard.’
In particular, the former Filipino leader, known for his anti-Western tirades and warm ties with China and Russia, has lambasted his successor’s decision to expand the controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the U.S.. Under the defense pact, signed in 2014 just over a year after the Scarborough Shoal showdown between the Philippines and China, the Pentagon will enjoy extensive access to strategically-located facilities facing both the South China Sea (to the west) as well as Taiwan and the Philippine Sea (to the north and east).
“By granting bases to America, we can be sure – and I am sure as the sun rises in the east – that these nuclear bases…will have nuclear warheads,” Duterte claimed in a recent television program, warning that the Pentagon is intent on positioning destructive weapons in Philippine bases.
Although the former president provided no evidence for his claims, since EDCA only allows U.S. to preposition warships and basic military hardware with the consent of host nation, Duterte insisted that it would be “pretty naive or [an act of] stupidity” to presume the Pentagon won’t smuggle in weapons of mass destruction to Philippine facilities.
"In the event of a clash between the U.S. and China, the Philippines would become a cemetery," Duterte warned, effectively blaming his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., of recklessly imperiling his nation. “Nuclear bombs are far too different … I think, or I believe, not think, that the Philippines would be a graveyard if war comes,” he added, maintaining that any conflict between the two superpowers will likely escalate into a nuclear showdown.
In fairness, Marcos Jr. has repeatedly emphasized his opposition to Pentagon’s potential weaponization of the EDCA sites against Beijing. But China hawks in the Philippines are pushing the President in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, Philippine Senator Francis Tolentino, who served as Duterte’s former political adviser, openly advocated for the formation of a “new Quad” composed of the Philippines, Australia, U.S., and Japan against China.
Together with a number of independent and opposition senators, he also supported a recent call for the Philippines to take its maritime disputes with China to the United Nations General Assembly. The intense debates among Filipino political elites reflects deepening worries over the direction of U.S.-China strategic competition, which is shaping the foreign policy of smaller Southeast Asian states.
In a high-profile speech at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made her most important speech yet about the state of Sino-American relations. On one hand, she made it clear that the Biden administration rejects the narrative that “conflict between the United States and China” is “increasingly inevitable.”
She dismissed such paranoid narrative as “driven by fears, shared by some Americans, that the United States was in decline. And that China would imminently leapfrog us as the world’s top economic power, leading to a clash between nations.” Striking an optimistic note, Yellen maintained that the U.S. “remains the most dynamic and prosperous economy in the world,” and thus there is no need to stifle China’s economic and technological modernization” by embracing a full-on containment strategy and economic decoupling.
But as astute observers such as historian Adam Tooze have noted, the most crucial part of her speech was the admission that Washington is determined to maintain its hegemony. As Yellen puts it, “China’s economic growth need not be incompatible with U.S. economic leadership,” thus implying that “U.S. economic leadership” is the de facto strategic redline.
Interestingly, the Biden administration’s foreign policy exhibits a similar hegemony-preserving attitude. The whole point behind the so-called “integrated deterrence” strategy, whereby the Pentagon works in conjunction with military allies across the Indo-Pacific, is to precisely prevent China from fully dislodging America as the de facto regional hegemon.
In fact, as China’s Global Times newspaper warned shortly after Blinken’s visit to Beijing, “military tensions between China and the U.S. have yet to see an immediate de-escalation,” since “both countries' warships and warplanes, including aircraft carriers, spotted operating in sensitive waters in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea on China's doorstep over the past few days.”
Although Blinken struck a more moderate tone on the future of Taiwan, emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to the decades-old “One China” policy, there was no concession on the geopolitical front. In fact, top U.S. officials have reiterated their commitment to push back, in conjunction with treaty allies such as the Philippines, against China’s expanding strategic footprint in adjacent waters in recent weeks.
Just as troubling is the state of public opinion in America. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows growing anti-Beijing sentiment among American voters. As many as two-thirds of Americans described the Asian superpower as a “critical threat” and as many as 4 out of 5 Americans expressed unfavorable views of Beijing. Shockingly, American skepticism towards China nowadays almost mirrors early hostility towards the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War.
As a result, it’s unlikely that the Biden administration, which is heading into a new election cycle, is either in a mood or political position to make any major concessions to China, including rolling back unilateral sanctions against key Chinese officials and industries.
This is highly problematic since Beijing has repeatedly made it clear that resumption of institutionalized dialogue, including among the two powers’ armed forces, will largely depend on expression of sincere good will by the Americans. As a result, all sides, including regional states, should double down on their efforts to prevent any unwanted confrontation between the U.S. and China absent a major breakthrough in bilateral ties for the foreseeable future.