June 11, 2023

US-China: Jaw-Jaw or Thaw-Thaw?

B Arjun

THE risk of conflict in the Western Pacific is growing as both China and America, along with their allies, raise the military stakes with the goal of outsmarting each other. Both Washington and Beijing are trying hard to keep their nerve while preparing for war. President Xi Jinping warned Chinese national security officials last week that they should prepare for the "worst-case" scenario and "stormy seas.”

Last month, a Chinese naval vessel came within 150 yards of a US missile destroyer traversing the Taiwan Strait with a Canadian warship. China sees the crowding of the straits by western navies as a direct act of provocation in its territorial waters. On the other hand, America considers such patrols essential to maintain the principle of freedom of navigation.

At the end of last month, a Chinese fighter jet came within 400 yards of a US reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace above the South China Sea. Beijing sees the out-of-territory operations by US airplanes as a violation of its airspace and an attempt to "intentionally create trouble in the Taiwan Strait, deliberately stirring up risks, and maliciously undermining regional peace and stability." Washington palpably blames China for adopting intimidating tactics. Criticising China, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin said China was conducting "an alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace." Austin further added, "We do not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”

The US Navy (USN), which has plans to extend its stay in the South China Sea and waters around China, has proposed collaborating with private shipbuilders in Japan, India, South Korea, and the Philippines for repairs, maintenance, and overhaul of frontline forward-deployed warships like destroyers, frigates, and amphibious vessels in Japan.

Another incident considered to have intensified the ongoing Cold War between the two was Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu's refusal to meet US defense secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore. Li snubbed Austin's request because Washington has refused to lift sanctions on him. Li has been under US sanctions since 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft and equipment from Russia's main arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. Defying the US diktat, China appointed Li Shangfu as defense minister in March this year.

All this drama happening in the vicinity of China, far away from the US coast, is certainly undermining regional stability. The Chinese goal is to push the US out of the Western Pacific, and the American aim is to curtail China's strategic autonomy and preserve its own global hegemony.

America is convinced that China is using both military and economic coercion. At the recently concluded G-7 summit, the leaders voiced their concerns not only about Beijing's actions in the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan but also about the "economic coercion" practiced by Beijing against countries that defied it by embracing Taiwan as an independent state. For example, China has blocked Lithuanian exports after the Baltic country allowed Taiwan to set up a de facto embassy there. The G7 pronouncements against China lack credibility because the "weaponisation of economic vulnerabilities" has been an important tool in their foreign policy kit. The group of countries is known to impose sanctions not only on Iran and Russia but also to ban, along with Japan and the Netherlands, exports of chips and chip technology to China.

After a slandering campaign against China at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the Biden administration has resumed efforts to bring an imminent "thaw" in relations with China.

The US is building partnerships to confront China. China is also creating its own alliances with other countries. Just as the G7 summit kicked off, China hosted a parallel meeting with Central Asian countries.

Despite the growing clamour for decoupling with China, America cannot afford to break links with the second-biggest economy in the world. This inherent contradiction in American policy has led the Chinese to say that the West cannot have it both ways by criticising China while also enjoying the fruits of their economic partnership.

Adopting a conciliatory tone vis-a-vis China, Austin, while reaffirming the US commitment to allies in the Indo-Pacific, also called on China to engage with the Pentagon. In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Austin said, "For responsible defence leaders, the right time to talk is any time, the right time to talk is every time, and the right time to talk is now. Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity.”

To stem the tide of fast-deteriorating ties between Beijing and Washington, the CIA director William Burns traveled to China on a secret mission last month. Burns is the highest-level administration official to visit the country since the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon. He had probably gone to China to reassure Beijing that Washington had no plans to foment a "coloured revolution" in China.

America is making war plans and enhancing interoperability between the forces of its friends and allies in the region for a Taiwan contingency. The US has also been preaching to the world that Russia's invasion of Ukraine "brought home to people everywhere how dangerous our world would become if big countries could just invade their peaceful neighbours with impunity." China, on the other hand, has been warning the Taiwanese people against self-destructive policies at the behest of America.

No matter what Biden does, the American war hawks that insist on an enhanced US naval presence in the South China Sea fail to appreciate that military provocations are making the bilateral détente between the two powers more difficult.

China's clear goal is to push the US out of the Western Pacific, and it is getting bolder as its military power rapidly increases.

Thaw or no thaw, the power struggle between the two will only intensify in the coming years. Indian diplomacy must work to prevent an accidental confrontation between Washington and Beijing, as a war in the Western Pacific between the two nuclear-armed biggest economies in the world would be a disaster for people across the globe.