Fifty years since a secret visit to Beijing by then-U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger paved the way for American engagement with communist China, ties between the two rival powers are now heading in the opposite direction.
That trajectory is unlikely to be altered any time soon, experts say, as top officials in both countries buckle down for a long-haul competition.
“I think both countries are preparing for a prolonged, contested struggle,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund think tank.
Biden administration officials say the U.S. strategy is a reaction to China’s own aggressive behavior, while the Chinese side says that increased tensions are the result of tougher U.S. policies.
“The fundamental reason (for the tensions) is that the principles governing their interactions are in dispute across an increasingly wide array of topics,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert on Sino-U.S. relations at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington. “The pair have divergent — and sometimes diametrically opposed — visions for geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, how to regulate technology, what constitutes legitimate domestic governance and the rules for international institutions, among other topics.
“Overall, they lack a sustainable framework for peaceful, if competitive, coexistence with one another,” he added.
Evidence in the form of a spate of military and economic moves, as well as speeches and remarks by top officials from both governments, lends credence to the notion that both sides are preparing for a protracted contest.
‘Beijing has arrived’
From a Chinese vice foreign minister to its powerful vice president, and all the way up to the country’s “core” leader, Xi Jinping, Beijing has attempted to coax Washington into signing on for “win-win” cooperation while taking a firm stance that it won’t be cowed if Washington demurs.
Speaking Friday at an event commemorating Kissinger’s secret visit, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, a close ally of Xi, urged both sides to “respect each other’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” settle frictions via dialogue and consultations, and “address each other’s concerns in a balanced way.”
“The biggest challenge for the United States is not China but the United States itself,” Wang said. “The U.S. China policy should avoid turning into a vicious cycle of misjudgment and misguidance. As long as both sides uphold the idea of a shared future for humanity, China and the U.S. will not find their problems fundamentally antagonistic and will find a path of peaceful coexistence and cooperation for win-win results.”
But nowhere has China’s confident stance been more clear than during Xi’s speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding earlier this month.
In the July 1 speech, Xi took a defiant tone, telling throngs of flag-waving citizens that the Chinese people would “never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us,” an oblique reference to the U.S.
“Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he said.
Although Xi’s speech was largely directed at a domestic audience, observers said it was interspersed with messages for China’s rivals.
The key takeaway: “That Beijing has arrived as a superpower and that China under Xi would continue to pursue its goals aggressively despite a gathering backlash against China throwing its weight around regionally and globally,” said Stokes, who previously served on Joe Biden’s national security staff during his time as vice president.
The end of engagement
The United States has been equally vocal about the growing rivalry, deploying its top official for Asia to weigh in on the soured Sino-U.S. relationship.
In a stark signal that things may get worse before they get better, White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said last week that while he believes it’s possible for China and the U.S. to peacefully coexist, “the challenge is enormously difficult for this generation and the next.”
Campbell raised eyebrows in May when he said that the period of Sino-American relations that had broadly been described as one of engagement had “come to an end,” with the new “dominant paradigm” being competition.
But the Biden team is going beyond just rhetoric, having unveiled or telegraphed a spate of actions in recent days. These include new import controls for China’s far-west Xinjiang region, where the government has been accused of large-scale rights abuses, a repudiation of Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea and discussions about a digital trade agreement covering Indo-Pacific economies — a reported move that would be seen as an early effort by the administration to present an economic plan for the world’s most economically and strategically crucial region.
The moves have underscored that Biden’s China policy will maintain — and bolster — at least some aspects of former President Donald Trump’s more confrontational approach.
“The Biden administration’s national security team has explicitly voiced the view that Trump’s China reset was needed but that they differ in their tactics, approaches and overall strategy,” said Stephen Nagy, an expert on Asian geopolitics and a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
He cited the Biden administration’s alliance-first and whole-of-government approach to “extreme competition with China,” including a number of bilateral and multilateral joint statements and coordinated actions that explicitly targeted Beijing, some for the first time ever.
Taiwan looms large
The issue that has dominated headlines, however, has been the fate of Taiwan.
The increasing rancor and competition between China and the U.S. has stoked fears that a full-scale conflict could erupt over the self-ruled island, with top American military officials warning that Beijing could invade Taiwan within six years.
China views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, considers Taiwan a key partner and crucial line of defense as the Chinese military continues to push further into the western Pacific. Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the U.S. is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself.
In recent months, Chinese warplanes and vessels have routinely conducted operations in the vicinity of Taiwan — including a massive contingent of 28 bombers, fighters and spy planes last month — stoking fears of possible practice for an invasion.
For Xi, taking Taiwan is likely to be a crucial goal, though one that may not be at the top of his agenda — for now.
“I don’t think he’s in a desperate hurry to get this done in the next five years or so, but he will not leave it unaccomplished before he is ready to hand over (power) to somebody else,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, noting that he expects Xi to maintain his grip on power indefinitely.
Xi is widely believed to be aiming to further consolidate his power with an unprecedented third term at a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress in late 2022.
But when it comes to Taiwan, the Chinese leader is likely to bide his time until he feels comfortable with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s ability to both take the island and deter U.S. intervention, he said.
“So I think we are looking at something more like 20 years,” Tsang told a recent online event. “The man is 68, so past the 10-year mark from today, the risk that the PLA is ordered to do something will increase significantly year by year.”
Still, the U.S. has stressed that Taiwan isn’t the only flash point with China that has triggered concern.
The U.S. and China have also grappled over the disputed South China Sea, through which more than one-third of global trade passes, while also reaffirming that the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea fall under the scope of the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
On Friday, the admiral in charge of intelligence for the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command warned that China’s growing military assertiveness has increased the danger of conflict in a number of hot spots in Asia.
“What are we warning about: It’s danger on all fronts,” Rear Adm. Mike Studeman said last week during an online discussion. “This idea that it’s only a Taiwan scenario vs. many other areas where the Chinese are being highly assertive, coercive is a failure in understanding complexity, because it’s not that simple.”
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