Business Maverick

Business Maverick

US-China downward spiral raises fresh fears of eventual conflict

US-China downward spiral raises fresh fears of eventual conflict
A Chinese visitor takes a photo in front of a screen showing former President Jiang Zemin at an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up at the National Museum of China in Beijing, China, 15 November 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE/WU HONG)

China and the US have locked themselves into a new cycle of recriminations, provoking fresh worries that the world’s two biggest economies are heading down a path that could one day lead to the once unthinkable: the possibility of open conflict.

The latest back-and-forth started on Monday, when President Xi Jinping said in a speech that China was the victim of “comprehensive containment and suppression by western countries led by the US”. Two days later, US director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called Xi’s remarks “the most public and direct criticism that we’ve seen from him to date” — and she responded in kind.

China’s Communist Party “represents both the leading and most consequential threat to US national security and leadership globally”, Haines told a Senate hearing that covered everything from dangers posed by TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, to the threat of war over Taiwan to China’s role producing precursors to fentanyl, which kills tens of thousands of Americans every year.

The duelling narratives brought into sharp focus how the US and China increasingly have one thing in common: a growing distrust of the other side. Even worse, the escalating rhetoric is entrenching divisions that could make it harder for both sides to find a way to co-exist peacefully over the long term. 

“The US-China relationship is stuck in a negative feedback loop,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security and Obama-era official. “It’s a volatile situation.”

To be sure, there’s no sign of a war breaking out anytime soon. Haines and Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns also said on Thursday the US intelligence community assesses that China doesn’t want a military conflict over Taiwan, particularly after seeing the US and allied support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. The countries remain each other’s top trading partners and both sides have insisted they don’t want a new Cold War. 

Still, each side is now accelerating preparations for that very scenario. Xi this week implored his government to prepare for greater self-reliance, especially in science and technology, while the US is pushing its allies to reorient supply chains to deny China advanced chips and other strategic goods.

And while pessimism around US-China ties is nothing new, relations have deteriorated at an alarming speed since President Joe Biden met Xi in November and pledged to improve ties. A national uproar over the alleged Chinese spy balloon that traversed the US fanned tensions, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a trip to Beijing meant to build upon the Biden-Xi summit.

After the US military shot down the balloon, a response that China called “hysterical”, Biden said he expected to soon be speaking with Xi. Yet nearly a month later, the two leaders haven’t spoken — and there’s no indication of when they might do so. 

Adding to tensions were assessments from the Department of Energy and the FBI that the coronavirus pandemic likely began with a lab leak in Wuhan, China. On Thursday, the US sanctioned five Chinese companies for allegedly supplying aerospace parts for Iranian drones.

Privately, Chinese officials say their attempts to extend a hand to Washington have been consistently slapped away. One Chinese official said the US speaks publicly about improving ties with China, but seeks confrontation in practice. Another said that the countries are caught in a downward spiral that neither side knows how to stop.

‘Bashing its kneecaps’

Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat who served as translator to the late leader Deng Xiaoping, said Beijing believes that “China has been on the defensive side and the US has been on the aggressive side,” pointing to Washington’s evolving Taiwan policy and what he characterised as its efforts to “prevent China’s development by bashing its kneecaps”. 

US officials, for their part, point out that China still hasn’t changed any of the behaviour that’s drawn criticism, from assertiveness toward its neighbors to its efforts to steal the intellectual property of US companies and harass dissidents overseas. The tone taken by Chinese diplomats and state media, they say, have also made it more difficult to improve ties. An article in the Communist Party-run Global Times last week described US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns as an American “wolf warrior”.

This week alone produced a series of actions from Congress and the Biden administration that are likely to make it even more difficult to mend fences. 

The White House endorsed a bipartisan bill that would give the president the ability to force the sale of foreign-owned technologies, which could include ByteDance’s TikTok. On Wednesday night, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy confirmed plans to meet with Taiwan’s president in the US this year and has refused to rule out a trip to the island later on. The next day the Biden administration announced a budget proposal that included billions of dollars in requests to boost its military presence in Asia. The US even plans to sell nuclear powered submarines to Australia.

The whiplash from the abrupt tone in ties can be seen in the rhetoric coming from Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who served as ambassador to the US before the promotion earlier this year. On Jan. 4, he wrote a gauzy opinion piece in the Washington Post marking his departure with some warm words and an optimistic outlook. 

“In the fall, I visited a corn and soybean farm in Missouri and was deeply moved by my hosts’ sincerity and hospitality,” he wrote. “Going forward, the development of China-US relations will remain an important mission of mine in my new position.”

‘War of words’

Now this week, his tone shifted closer to the “wolf warrior” broadside that Chinese diplomats employed frequently before Xi’s push late last year to soften the nation’s image abroad as it emerged from three years of Covid Zero isolation.  

“If the United States does not hit the brakes, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there will surely be conflict and confrontation,” Qin said at the annual gathering of China’s National People’s Congress on Monday. He still ended with a glimmer of hope, saying China would still pursue a “sound and stable” US relationship.

“China’s overreach has triggered an extreme American overreaction,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for China and author of Overreach: How China Derailed its Peaceful Rise.

“The war of words reminds me of the polemics during the US-Soviet Cold War that made it almost impossible for us to think sensibly about the trade-offs between the costs and benefits of our own policies or pursue diplomacy with the other side without being pilloried for being weak or unpatriotic,” she said. BM/DM

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