China and the US have to get off their collision course

Gaza and Ukraine are burning. The crisis that most seriously threatens the world, though, is the escalating confrontation between the United States and China. Both sides say they want peaceful competition. Sometimes they even talk of cooperation. Their actions, however, contradict their words.

Both countries are upgrading their nuclear arsenals. Chinese missiles, bombers, submarines, and hypersonic vehicles — which fly at several times the speed of sound — already pose a credible threat to US bases in Guam and Japan. China has upgraded its nuclear testing site and is deploying dummy missile silos to confuse an attacker in case of war.

Americans might see these as provocations. China sees them as responses to American threats. The United States continually patrols areas near China with overflights and naval maneuvers. In addition, impassioned US support for Taiwan seems to contradict our official “one China” policy.

In 2022 Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, visited Taiwan. China responded by firing a barrage of ballistic missiles over Taiwanese soil. Tensions have not eased since then. “For unreasonable provocations, we will take just countermeasures,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently declared. It is the classic security dilemma: Actions that one side takes to defend itself are seen by the other as aggressive, setting off a spiral of escalation.

Anti-China sentiment has reached a fever pitch in Washington. Leaders of both parties compete to denounce China ever more colorfully. The House of Representatives has created a Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party “to build consensus on the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party and develop a plan of action to defend the American people, our economy, and our values.” Its most recent victory was the House vote to ban TikTok, the hugely popular Chinese-owned social media platform.

During the 20th century, the United States was able to isolate and ultimately bankrupt the Soviet Union. The world has changed immensely since then. China cannot be isolated, because it has so many willing partners. Chinese products that are subject to US import restrictions or high tariffs are now routinely sent through other countries, notably Vietnam and Mexico, where they are repackaged and sent on to American markets. Some of China’s oil comes from the United States, but we can’t cut off the country’s entire supply, because Russia, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iraq, and other countries happily provide most of it.

This frustrating new reality reflects profound changes that are reshaping the wider world. The Euro-Atlantic region has been dominant for the last five centuries, but that era is ending. Neither Western military power nor Western ideals dominate as they used to. The world’s center of gravity is shifting. Refusing to accept this fact, or rebelling against it, prevents the United States from dealing with China in a way that reduces rather than sharpens tension.

China, meanwhile, has scornfully alienated some of its neighbors. It sprinkles aid and other largesse, but it also bullies and intimidates. Japan and South Korea are building up their armies to deal with what they see as a rising Chinese threat. Vietnam and the Philippines also support the US campaign to limit China’s power and influence.

Diplomacy can establish rules of the road for this intensifying rivalry. Differences between the two sides are deep, but none are as profound as the threat of nuclear war. New accords would not only ease tensions but allow for cooperation on urgent global concerns like climate change, terrorism, and public health.

Both sides insist they do not want war. In January, following an accord reached by President Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at their meeting last year, officers from the two armies met for the first time since the Pelosi visit two years ago. In March, the US ambassador to the United Nations said the United States is ready for “bilateral arms control discussions” with China. Just three days later, however, the chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, told a congressional committee that “we haven’t faced a threat like this since World War II.” The Biden-Xi meeting has not cooled passions on either side.

Xi and Biden spoke by phone last week, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in China to meet with her counterpart. Without regular high-level contacts like these, China and the United States are likelier to move toward military competition. Each side rejects the other’s right to guide events in the Western Pacific. The Chinese defense minister, Li Shangfu, is under American sanctions and cannot enter the United States. The new No. 2 official at the State Department is Kurt Campbell, a proud “China hawk” who has warned that the United States must not approach China as a “wildly ardent suitor.”

It is in both countries’ interest to shape a stable long-term relationship, with safeguards to assure that it never degenerates into war. American politics is a main obstacle. In Washington, defending Taiwan is often lumped with defending Ukraine, do-or-die battles in a global war between freedom and tyranny.

Maximalist rhetoric, hypernationalist chest-beating, and tit-for-tat escalation fuel this looming conflict. Both sides are in an aggressive mood. Today the world is distracted by the horrors in Gaza and Ukraine. Wars there will end. Without course corrections in Washington and Beijing, the danger of a US-China crackup will remain.

One Response

  1. Liz Sanderson
    Liz Sanderson at | | Reply

    Wow! Chas Freeman, MAPA talk, just said you are a genius at writing op-Ed’s and a VERY wonderful human being. One overlap was the 500 yr of western, Euro hegemony decline…

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