Collision or coexistence?

Published September 12, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

A SERIES of provocative actions by the US suggest it is intensifying its confrontation with China. Announcement of a billion-dollar arms package for Taiwan, on the heels of controversial visits by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional members to Taipei, prompted an angry response from Beijing.

China’s foreign minister described Pelosi’s visit as “manic and irresponsible” and Beijing warned relations would be “seriously jeopardised” by the arms sales. Washington also stepped up the tech war with fresh curbs on US exports of chip technology to Chinese companies. This led Beijing to accuse the US of imposing a “technological blockade” out of an exaggerated notion of national security.

Rising tensions now have the hallmark of a new cold war. Despite their economic interdependence the two global powers are locked in a dangerous confrontation. The US is embarked on a policy to contain China while Beijing has made it evident that while it doesn’t want a crisis it will act assertively to protect its interests and counter American actions.

Read: Pakistan willing to bridge US-China differences, says Shehbaz

China’s heightened military activity and exercises including firing conventional missiles around Taiwan in response to US actions, has signalled it is prepared to mount military pressure on Taiwan. The US, for its part, has been increasing its military presence there.

In the two years of his presidency, Joe Biden has pursued a hawkish line on China, quite indistinguishable from his predecessor Donald Trump’s approach that saw the US impose wide-ranging trade tariffs on Chinese exports, deploy belligerent rhetoric and take actions seen as provocations by Beijing. This hardline policy has been driven by Washington’s growing fear of a rival superpower’s increasing economic, military and technological power, seen as a threat to US dominance. Biden’s stance also reflects political consensus in the US that views China not just as a competitor but an adversary to be contained. The upcoming midterm congressional elections may be an added factor in the Biden administration’s combative stance to make the Democratic Party look tough on China.

The world’s most consequential relationship between the US & China needs to be managed responsibly.

Tensions over Taiwan have been taking a perilous course. Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned Washington of a tough response if Beijing’s red line is crossed — encouraging ‘separatist forces’ towards the independence of Taiwan, which China regards as an inalienable part of its territories. The US insists its ‘One China’ policy remains unchanged but Beijing sees willful violation. Meanwhile American officials continue to voice opposition to “unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. During his visit to Japan in May, Biden declared he would be willing to use military force to defend Taiwan if it was invaded by China. This evoked strong condemnation from Beijing that accused Biden of “playing with fire”.

Opinion is divided among experts over whether present tensions can escalate and eventually result in military conflict between the US and China. Several former American officials and Western analysts warn against such an outcome. Henry Kissinger for one has cautioned the Biden administration against “endless confrontations” and letting domestic politics overshadow “the importance of understanding the permanence of China”. He warned that the two can drift into conflict which will produce a catastrophe on the scale of World War I. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd also believes any conflict would be disastrous. In his book The Avoidable War, published earlier this year, he makes the case for “managed strategic competition” between the two superpowers and says that evolving a “joint strategic framework” might help them find a way to coexist without compromising their fundamental interests and thus avert the risk of war.

Ian Bremmer offers the compelling argument that a US-China collision, with other countries expected to choose sides, would prevent the world from addressing the three impending global crises — pandemics, climate emergency and life-altering disruptive technology. A cold war, he reasons in his new book The Power of Crisis, is not inevitable. A partnership between rival powers, who engage in “well-coordinated competition”, could help meet the world’s most pressing challenges.

These hopeful scenarios are not yet playing out in Sino-US relations. If anything, expectations of de-escalation of tensions and stabilisation of ties have not materialised. Developments point in a different direction. Last year the US forged a new trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia named AUKUS. This aims to enhance Australia’s naval power by nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s military ascendancy in the western Pacific. Apart from its nuclear proliferation implications, this further reinforced in Beijing’s mind that Biden had embarked on a strategy to contain China.

More recently, Biden’s five-nation May trip to Asia was designed to cement the anti-China coalition as well as offer so-called Indo-Pacific states an ostensible alternative to their close trade and investment ties with China. The second in-person meeting of Quad countries — US, Japan, India and Australia — also took place in Tokyo in May. The Quad was resuscitated with the express purpose of countering China. The statement issued after the summit did not name China but the reference was clear when it declared resistance to “any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, the announcement that Quad nations would invest over $50 billion in developing infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region was also aimed at offsetting China’s growing influence.

While there is no confirmation yet, a summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Biden is likely on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia in November. This will be their first face-to-face encounter. Their previous conversations, by phone or video, have helped clarify their positions and sought to build what Biden called “guardrails” to prevent an inadvertent drift into conflict. But they did not produce a lasting thaw in their frosty ties. Whether the meeting in Bali can help stabilise fraying relations is yet to be determined as both global powers do not want any military collision. What is apparent is the need for the world’s most consequential relationship to be managed responsibly to avert a breakdown, even conflict. The future course of Sino-US relations has far-reaching consequences for the global economy, international peace and security and dealing with a range of shared challenges.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2022

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