- Divergence on four core strategic issues – China’s ambivalence to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel, and US containment of China and attitude around Taiwan – won’t be so easily bridged
- Washington and Beijing have each defined the other as their principal, strategic long-term threat – that must change before relations can truly improve
Without expectation, but with hope, I have watched for signs that recent exchanges between senior US and Chinese leaders would help stabilise the dangerous descent in Sino-American ties. But since 2021, each conversation between the two presidents or their subordinates has been followed by a further slide. Though Joe Biden and Xi Jinping getting together would be positive, it is hard to see things changing much.
Washington talks of “guardrails” for US-China relations; Beijing does not. The White House calls for competition and cooperation; Beijing says there will be no cooperation with Washington’s kind of competition. The US administration talks of “ de-risking” supply chains and Xi talks of self-reliance. Washington talks about crisis management and risk reduction; Beijing believes only risky behaviour gets US attention.
Both sides talk about deterring the other, the core feature of deterrence being threat. Both sides search for allies and partners, with China moving closer to Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Both capitals talk about picking the low-hanging fruit of economic and cultural exchange, but there has been little progress. The war in Ukraine and intensifying conflict in the Middle East have greatly compounded strategic distrust.
America and China have come to deeply distrust each other on four core strategic issues – two are of concern to America and two to China. Until our capitals can sit down and adjust policies in these regards, and domestic politics in each society changes, talk of a different, more productive relationship is illusory, and the danger of conflict will mount.
For America, two areas of concern are foundational. The first is that China has seemingly abandoned its commitment to the sovereignty of borders recognised by the United Nations, a core principle former premier Zhou Enlai articulated in 1954. Sovereignty had heretofore been a constant refrain for China.
With the February 4, 2022 joint statement of Russia and China announcing a “no limits” partnership, followed shortly by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s steadfast refusal to condemn the attack and the borderline support of Moscow’s war effort, China has abandoned its long-articulated principle. This cratered Western confidence in Beijing.
A second fundamental Chinese move came after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Beijing’s reaction was very different from its response after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks.
President Jiang Zemin had been among the first leaders to call president George W. Bush to say China stood with America against terrorism, and went on to cooperate on securing cargo shipping containers coming to America through Chinese ports, Washington’s fear being that any of these shipments could carry a weapon of mass destruction.
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But since October 7, Beijing has merely called for “restraint” and a “ceasefire”, failing to condemn Hamas or terrorism, continued to consolidate ties with Iran, and in the UN Security Council supported a Russian resolution implying moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas.
Consequently, America has come to see China’s fundamental strategy as standing by and letting turmoil in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere so compound the challenges facing America that Washington cannot focus its attentions on China. Beijing also hopes to solidify support in the Arab world. The fraught state of US internal governance makes all this more attractive.
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China’s bones to pick with America are no less important, and of a long standing. First, in Beijing’s view, successive Washington administrations have nibbled away at the agreements and norms developed since 1972 concerning Taiwan. These norms and arrangements include avoiding “official” relations with Taipei and not defining the island as a strategic asset to which Washington is committed to keeping separate.
Beijing was shaken by the December 8, 2021, Senate testimony by a senior Biden defence department official suggesting precisely that. Beijing senses a drift towards a “one China, one Taiwan policy”. No Chinese leader believes he can survive accepting this.
The second major threat concerns Washington’s changed stance towards China’s economic development. For years, Washington’s mantra was some version of the following: “The United States supports a strong, stable and prosperous China.” Although there always were qualifications, America’s trade, educational exchange and export policies were reasonably consistent with such a principle.
Now, after yet another tightening of US export controls on silicon chips and the machinery to manufacture them, The New York Times thought it appropriate to write in an October 21 article: “As the United States tries to slow China’s progress towards technological advances that could help its military …” In China, there is little or no debate that Washington is pursuing a “containment” policy.
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From Beijing’s viewpoint, Washington has reversed field on the core understandings that made it possible for Mao Zedong and later Deng Xiaoping to move towards the normalisation of US-China relations – the end of containment and the careful management of the Taiwan issue.
That America and China have diverged on such four basic strategic principles is a rift that cannot be bridged simply by agreement on trade issues, resumption of educational and media exchanges and diplomatic working groups on functional issues, much as I support such efforts.
This brings us to the bottom line. When the two presidents exchange views, in whatever forum that may occur, the task is to renew mutual strategic confidence on the four issues discussed. Taiwan’s election early next year is just one of many tests ahead. But the most fundamental of all the hurdles is that Washington and Beijing have each defined the other as their principal, strategic threat over the long term. Changing that is job one.