Confrontation or coexistence?

Published June 12, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WHILE there has been a recent flare-up in military tensions between the US and China in the Taiwan Strait, efforts have also been underway by officials of the two global powers to stabilise the world’s most consequential relationship. That Taiwan remains a dangerous flashpoint in their confrontation was laid bare last week when there was a near collision between a Chinese warship and an American Navy guided-missile destroyer. This underscored what many countries in Asia and beyond have long feared — an inadvertent drift into a conflict that neither side wants but may be unable to avert in a region bristling with heightened military activity.

This prompted an exchange of toughly worded statements between the top defence officials of the two countries. They used the platform of the Shangri La security dialogue organised every year by a London-based think tank in Singapore to send each other strong messages. The statement by China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu was especially sharp. Referring to “navigational hegemony” being used on the pretext of “freedom of navigation”, he warned of a “whirlpool of conflict” if Western militaries did not stay out of Chinese waters and airspace.

For his part, the American defence chief Lloyd Austin assailed China for risky aerial actions over the South China Sea and warned of a US response to “threatening actions”, “bullying or coercion”. But he also called for resumption of military dialogue especially in view of the fact that Beijing turned down a bilateral meeting between Li and him in Singapore until the removal of sanctions imposed on the Chinese official for his role in the purchase of Russian weapons.

Although this exchange of words only reinforced tensions. the unannounced visit to Beijing last month by the CIA chief Bill Burns marked an effort to bring down the temperature and mend ties. Explaining the nature of the trip, a US official was quoted as saying it aimed at emphasising to his Chinese counterparts “the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels”. He was the highest-level official of the Biden administration to visit China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now expected to go to Beijing in the coming weeks. His visit in February was called off amid rising tensions.

Washington’s desire to halt the slide in ties was also evidenced in the statement by President Joe Biden at the Group of Seven (G7) summit last month that he expected an imminent thaw in relations with China. The summit’s May communique also laid out the US-led economic strategy for ‘de-risking’, rather than ‘de-coupling’ from the Chinese economy. The term is owed to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who used it a few months ago. She had said that “it is neither viable — nor in Europe’s interest — to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white — and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk — not decouple”.

Expectations that relations between the US and China would stabilise have yet to materialise.

The notion is generally understood to mean business can continue with China so long as dependence is reduced on the Chinese economy, and it involves curbs on technology exports as well as diminishes China’s control of global supply chains. In one sense, it is acknowledgement that decoupling is an unrealistic goal. It may also be recognition of the reluctance by America’s European allies, whose largest trading partner is China, to be pushed too far in constraining their economic ties with Beijing without harming themselves. But as several others have also pointed out, the notion is imprecise and would be open to differing interpretations by America’s alliance partners especially in implementation. The Chinese, however, criticised the G7 statement and were unmoved by the seemingly new strategy. Their response has been dismissive, saying the change in nomenclature was meaningless as actions still targeted China and aimed at its containment.

Although Biden and President Xi Jinping had agreed in their first in-person meeting last November in Bali, on the sidelines of the G20 summit, to decelerate tensions and manage their competition “responsibly”, that has been easier said than done. Differences have not narrowed over the contentious issues and disputes that divide them — Taiwan, trade, technology curbs and military postures. Indeed, both sides then and later have been spelling out their respective red lines on Taiwan. Although the US has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to a One China policy, it has sounded warnings over what it sees as China’s coercive posture on Taiwan. Biden has even said US forces would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. The US has also been cementing an anti-China coalition by its Indo-Pacific strategy and through Quad, AUKUS security partnership and the Five Eyes group. This has strengthened Beijing’s belief that the US under Biden insists on pursuing a strategy to contain China, which has prompted an assertive response from Beijing.

Washington is also engaged in a battle to maintain supremacy in technology with an intense ‘chip war’ underway. It has imposed sweeping measures to bar American companies and allied countries from exporting chips and advanced chip equipment to China in order to cripple its semiconductor industry, that manufactures chips and circuits for modern electronics ranging from supercomputers and smartphones to automobiles. These restrictions have further worsened relations.

Where does this dangerous confrontation leave the world’s most important bilateral relationship? Assessments vary about its future trajectory. Some experts see intense competition and tensions as inescapable, while others warn that unmanaged competition can put the two global powers on a collision course with unpredictable consequences. Still others see the danger of an unintended descent into war through miscalculation. As Henry Kissinger put it in a recent interview with The Economist, “both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger”. He rightly stressed that the fate of the world depends on whether the two powers can learn to coexist. But that in turn would depend on whether the US can persuade itself to be less insecure about China’s rise. And equally important, on how responsive an increasingly assertive China will be to core US concerns.

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

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2023

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