In the skies above the South China Sea last month, a US reconnaissance aircraft was on a routine mission in international airspace when a Chinese fighter jet intercepted it. The cockpit video showed the Chinese J-16 cutting across the nose of the American war plane, which juddered in the turbulence from its wake. Washington condemned the “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre”, but Beijing insisted the US was to blame for conducting “dangerous acts of provocation” that supposedly threatened China’s sovereignty and security.
Eight days later, on 3 June, the USS Chung-Hoon, a US navy destroyer, was transiting the Taiwan Strait alongside a Canadian frigate when a Chinese guided-missile destroyer veered across their path. The warships came within 137 metres of each other, according to the US military, which said the Chung-Hoon had been forced to reduce its speed to “avoid a collision”. Washington protested the “unsafe” interaction, but once again Beijing accused the US and Canada of “deliberately provoking risk” by sailing through the area. Song Zhongping, a prominent Chinese military commentator, applauded the “point-blank interception” as a testament to the navy’s “courage”.
The most alarming aspect of these close encounters is that the military-to-military communication channels that would be needed to manage a more serious incident are not functioning. Chinese and American defence leaders have not held formal talks for at least six months after Beijing suspended their previous dialogue to protest the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. When the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin requested a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu at a security summit in Singapore following the recent near misses, Li refused. Instead, he used his speech at the forum to warn the US to stay away from China’s territory.
This brinkmanship – and Beijing’s unrepentant response – is emblematic of the breakdown of US-China relations since the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon floating over the US earlier this year. The incident intensified grievances between the two powers. It also forced the US secretary of state Antony Blinken to postpone his planned visit to Beijing in early February. His trip was meant to “establish a floor” beneath the US-China relationship and agree on “guardrails” to manage a future crisis.
By the time he landed in the Chinese capital for his rescheduled trip on 18 June, that task had become much harder. “In the months since the balloon incident, the US-China relationship has resembled an airplane steadily losing altitude,” said Ryan Hass, who served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “But instead of working together to pull up the nose of the plane to avoid a crash, US and Chinese officials have been bickering in the cockpit over who is to blame for the downward trajectory.”
This was supposed to be the year of the thaw in US-China relations. When Joe Biden met Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali last November, the two leaders vowed to maintain open lines of communication and to work together on global challenges such as climate change and food security. “I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya,” the American president said at a news conference afterwards, but he told reporters he had found Xi to be “straightforward” and he was confident they could avoid a “new Cold War”.
Biden stressed his long relationship with Xi, whom he first met when they were both vice-presidents in 2011, and said he thought the Chinese leader seemed willing to compromise. But this assessment underplayed Xi’s historic consolidation of power in the decade since, and the extent to which he has prioritised projecting China’s strength abroad.
[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]
Xi’s message to his own citizens is that under the Chinese Communist Party, the country has reclaimed its rightful place in the world as a great power and that the days of being bullied or humiliated by foreign countries have “gone forever”. He has urged his diplomats to show “fighting spirit” and vowed to turn the military into a “great wall of steel” to defend China’s interests. He has demonstrated little interest in compromise.
Despite the differing presidential styles between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, Chinese officials note the continuity in their approach to China. Biden has largely stuck with the previous administration’s more confrontational approach, maintaining tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese imports and adding more Chinese companies to its trade blacklist. Beijing was also aggrieved by the White House’s decision in October 2022 to impose sweeping restrictions on exports of advanced semiconductors to hobble China’s development.
American arms sales to Taipei, as well as high-level meetings between Taiwanese and American officials, continue. Beijing has also criticised initiatives like the Aukus security pact, which will see the US, UK and Australia sharing nuclear submarine technology, as well as Washington’s support for Japan’s rearmament. During China’s annual parliamentary session in March, Xi lashed out at the US in unusually direct terms, accusing it of waging a campaign of “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression” against his country.
Chinese diplomats question whether Washington’s desire for engagement is genuine. This stance is aimed in part at audiences in Europe and the Global South where China wants to show that it is acting responsibly, in contrast to what is portrayed as American efforts to preserve the latter’s waning hegemony. At a time when China’s economy is slowing and youth unemployment has reached a record high of more than 20 per cent, the US also serves as a useful foil to blame for the country’s difficulties.
Domestic politics in both countries is making it harder to avoid confrontation. While the Biden administration has stressed the importance of re-establishing high-level dialogue with Beijing, this has been met with scepticism, even derision by Washington’s China hawks.
On the eve of Blinken’s rescheduled visit, Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman who chairs the House select committee on China, accused the administration of “zombie engagement” with Beijing by pursuing the same strategy that has failed for 30 years. “While we build guardrails for ourselves, the Communist Party builds fast lanes to achieve its long-term objectives,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 14 June. “Acquiescence today only makes military conflict more likely tomorrow.”
Gallagher also highlighted the recent raids of American companies in China, where a number of workers have been arrested, as well as the revelations earlier this month that China has established an electronic eavesdropping facility in Cuba. “Perhaps party officials don’t feel compelled to talk to our diplomats because they increasingly have more sinister means of listening to us,” he suggested. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House foreign affairs committee, said Blinken’s trip symbolised the administration’s “continued weakness in the face of [China’s] aggression”.
“US and Chinese officials both have to navigate complicated political situations in their efforts to develop reliable channels for managing tensions,” Hass, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, told me. “China’s leaders have been dialling up the blame on the United States for all that is wrong in the relationship and now need to explain to their domestic audience why they are hosting Secretary Blinken. While the Biden administration needs to defend against political accusations that they are going soft on China.”
Such accusations will only intensify during the 2024 US presidential election. If Trump, the Republican front-runner, is Biden’s opponent then he can be expected to revive his hostile rhetoric on China and to insist that he is the only president prepared to stand up to Beijing. But whoever ends up as the Republican candidate is likely pursue a similar approach. Time is running out for the world’s two largest economies to stabilise their relationship before then.
Blinken’s long-delayed visit to Beijing was a restrained affair and unfolded without incident. There was no red carpet waiting for him at the airport, but he met Xi and after more than seven hours of talks with the Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, both sides praised their “candid” and “constructive” discussions and said they had agreed to meet again. There were no breakthroughs, but a State Department official insisted they had made “progress” towards re-establishing high-level communications.
This was the easy part, and it took four months just to agree on the timing for this trip. It will take political courage and leadership on both sides to tackle the serious issues between them in the months ahead – and it is far from clear that either has the will or capacity to do so. But agreeing to keep talking to each other is at least a start, and it is far more preferable to the alternative.
This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars