A latest public opinion poll conducted by Gallup shows that Americans’ favourable views of China have dropped to 15%, a record low since 1979 when the two countries established diplomatic relations. The US-China relationship is in such an awful shape that high-level contacts between the two sides are essentially put on hold while “war talk” has become commonplace in Washington.
After a relatively friendly meeting in Bali, Indonesia between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November 2022, expectations ran high in the two countries that with the guidance of the top leaders, their foreign policy teams would be able to implement their shared understanding and steadily improve bilateral relations. Indeed, Cabinet-level visits were in the planning in early 2023.
The so-called “Chinese spy balloon” incident in February 2023 exposed the fragility of the relationship. The Chinese expressed regret that the balloon flew off-course and entered the US air space by mistake. However, that was not enough to convince Secretary of State Anthony Blinken he should proceed with his planned trip to China. No high-level visits have taken place since then.
A sense of the inevitable
The prevailing view in Washington is that Beijing has become aggressive in asserting its interests and in disrupting the US-led international order, while the dominant view in Beijing is that Washington is determined to block China’s rise and disregard China’s legitimate interests. A sense of fatalism can be felt on both sides now.
Foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. Clearly, for both countries, domestic issues are top priorities. The US-China relationship is not receiving adequate attention by either side.
America’s China policy is dominated by hardliners and warmongers. Generals have been busy predicting when a war with China will break out, and according to one, it could be as early as 2025.
In the US, President Biden’s main focus is his re-election campaign. He faces an uphill battle to convince American voters who are concerned about his age and health that he is the best candidate to lead America for another four years.
Working with allies and partners to defend the current international system and maintaining America’s dominant position in the world remain the Biden administration’s foreign policy objective, which compels the US to compete fiercely with China and to further dent Russia’s diminishing power. The US and China have sharply different interpretations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
America’s China policy is dominated by hardliners and warmongers. Generals have been busy predicting when a war with China will break out, and according to one, it could be as early as 2025. Surprisingly for a democracy, there had been no public debates or discussions about US-China relations before China was officially named America’s top threat.
Perhaps Beijing has given up on improving relations with Washington.
In China, after the October 2022 20th Party Congress and the March 2023 National People’s Congress that affirmed Xi Jinping’s third term as China’s paramount leader, there will be no major political events in the next few years. The Chinese government’s focus has turned to economic recovery in the post-Covid era. Other challenges such as a declining and graying population, a growing wealth gap, and a high rate of unemployment including millions of jobless college graduates every year will preoccupy the Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda.
Stuck in a security dilemma
Perhaps Beijing has given up on improving relations with Washington. China is not enthusiastic about receiving visiting US officials. Instead, it has welcomed to Beijing leaders from US allies such as Germany and France, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the US and its allies and stop Washington from forming a united front against China. The position of the Chinese ambassador in Washington remains vacant since the former ambassador Qin Gang was promoted to be China’s foreign minister in December 2022.
The US and China are stuck in a classic security dilemma and view each other as the biggest security threat. The more one power tries to beef up its security, the less secure the other party feels who in turn will strengthen its security, leading to a vicious cycle and bringing them closer to the brink of direct conflict.
Is the US willing to accommodate China’s rise? What will China do after it has achieved “the Chinese dream”? These are serious questions to ask as we tackle the difficult US-China relationship.
US policy makers have never fathomed and will not accept a new, multipolar world order.
China’s rise will, intentionally or unintentionally, challenge America’s hegemonic rule of the world. US policy makers have never fathomed and will not accept a new, multipolar world order. Washington continues to rally support from allies and partners to contain China, its disclaimer notwithstanding.
The inherent conflict associated with the global power transition makes managing US-China relations extremely hard, unless Washington graciously yields its global leadership to China or China willingly plays second fiddle and gives up its “core interests”. The US and China are both proud and powerful nations. It is impossible to subjugate one to another. Realistically, the two powers, together with other countries, will have to work together in a multipolar world.
Implications for the Taiwan Strait
The situation in the Taiwan Strait is most dire. US support for Taiwan has become firmer, and it is actively arming Taiwan to deter a Chinese attack. Washington keeps upgrading “unofficial” relations with Taiwan and its commitment to “one China” has become questionable. Some suggest the US is goading China into a war with it over Taiwan.
Playing the Taiwan card against China is the most convenient but also the most dangerous option for Washington. Defending Taiwan seems the right thing to do, especially if one frames the cross-strait issue as “democracy vs autocracy”. However, since Taiwan is at the core of China’s core interests, arming Taiwan is unlikely to deter Beijing. Rather, it will harden Beijing’s resolve to be better prepared for a military showdown in the Taiwan Strait.
Despite its avowal of peaceful reunification with Taiwan, China’s responses to perceived US or Taiwanese provocations have become more forceful. Chinese military exercises increasingly look like invasion or blockade rehearsals, adding tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
US officials believe that Xi Jinping has decided that reunification with Taiwan should be the centerpiece of his legacy. They think he is prepared to use force to secure that goal, and he has told the Chinese military to be ready by 2027.
As China becomes more powerful and assertive, and as Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” fades, the Taiwanese have become less interested in being merged into China as a distinct Taiwanese identity is being formed on the island.
America’s assessment of the political and strategic intentions underlying Chinese moves is bleak. US officials believe that Xi Jinping has decided that reunification with Taiwan should be the centerpiece of his legacy. They think he is prepared to use force to secure that goal, and he has told the Chinese military to be ready by 2027.
Countries on China’s periphery from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and India are also concerned about their security as they are uncertain how an increasingly powerful China will handle disputes in the future.
Possible to start rebuilding trust
Both the US and China need reassurance about their fundamental interests. For example, the US should strictly follow its commitment to maintaining only unofficial relations with Taiwan and leave the door open for potential peaceful cross-strait unification. China, on the other hand, should demonstrate through its actions that it will continue to improve human rights and political freedom domestically and pursue a peaceful foreign policy.
War between the US and China is not inevitable, and every effort should be made to remove war from the policy menus of both sides.
The two sides can also start rebuilding trust from less controversial issues, such as immediately resuming the Fulbright program in China that was suspended by the Trump administration, and significantly increasing flights between the two countries in response to growing post-Covid travel demands. There are pathetically very few direct flights between the two countries now and airfares are exorbitantly high, inhibiting people-to-people exchanges.
Gloomy and jingoistic sentiments are palpable in both Washington and Beijing, which provides fertile ground for various hawks, naysayers, nationalists, and warmongers to make crazy noises and push the bilateral relationship towards an abyss.
War between the US and China is not inevitable, and every effort should be made to remove war from the policy menus of both sides. Rational forces that promote peace and cooperation must become the mainstream thinking as we move this vital relationship forward.
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