There seems to be deepening pessimism about the direction of US-China relations among policymakers and analysts in both countries and across the Asia-Pacific region. Part of this souring sentiment reflects recent events. President Biden and President Xi (習近平) agreed at their meeting in Bali last November to dispatch Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing to explore steps that could lend greater stability and predictability to the relationship. Blinken’s trip was derailed when a Chinese spy balloon violated American airspace on the eve of his visit.
In the period since, both Washington and Beijing have shifted focus away from managing bilateral relations toward strengthening themselves for long-term competition with each other. For example, President Joe Biden has hailed progress in advancing the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance as a critical step in checking China’s efforts to dominate the region. The United States and its partners have further tightened China’s access to high-end, dual-use technologies. Washington has secured new military basing access in the Philippines. Rapprochement between the Republic of Korea and Japan has reconfigured the regional strategic picture in America’s favor. And domestically, members of Congress have become more seized with countering China and are working to mobilize the American public on this score.
Meanwhile, Xi has laid blame on the United States for China’s domestic struggles, complaining that Washington and its partners are working to contain, encircle, and suppress his country. China’s new foreign minister followed with a fiery press conference where he warned that the United States must adjust its approach if it wishes to avoid a clash with China.
Beijing has matched words with actions in girding for struggle with the United States. President Xi recently traveled to Moscow to strengthen solidarity with Putin in pushing back against Western leadership of the global order. Beijing also is working to drive wedges between the United States and Europe. China’s leaders will use upcoming visits by French, Spanish, and Italian leaders to encourage Europe’s strategic autonomy.
China also is working to present itself to the Global South as a force for peace, a contrast to American “hegemonism,” an economic growth engine, and a leader that respects each country’s governance model and growth path. This narrative got a boost when China brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In other words, there is mounting evidence that the United States and China are both divesting from their own relationship and instead doubling down on bolstering their competitive hands against each other. As these trends harden, questions are growing about whether the US-China relationship has crossed the abyss. For some, crossing the abyss means that the United States and China are settling into a new Cold War. For others, it means rising risk of a military confrontation or conflict.
While there is no question that risk is rising in the US-China relationship, it remains premature to conclude that the relationship is near or at a tipping point of no return. There are several reasons to preserve perspective on the current moment.
First, unlike the Cold War, the US and China are not leading two separate systems that are in competition with each other. Rather, they are both enmeshed within a single system and are both deeply interdependent on each other. So, while Washington is working to “friend-shore” in pursuit of more resilient supply chains, and Beijing similarly is promoting self-reliance to reduce dependence on the West for critical inputs, there is no serious policy discussion in either capital about full-scale economic decoupling.
Second, both Biden and Xi seem to believe that now is not an opportune moment for a great power showdown. They both expect that their countries will be in a stronger position in the future to withstand confrontation and potential conflict. This incentivizes both to manage competition in ways that limit risk of conflict.
Third, while there is palpably rising public animosity in both countries toward the other, there is still no public enthusiasm for resolving differences on the battlefield. Leaders in Washington and Beijing remain sober to the reality that conflict would destroy their pursuit of national ambitions.
These factors inform the pattern of relations that has been evident since President Biden assumed office. The first pattern has been a steady downward slope in the trajectory of relations. The slope occasionally is interrupted by plateaus around leader-level meetings that offer fleeting periods of stabilization. The second pattern has been a willingness by Biden and Xi to step in and cool tensions whenever the relationship risks overheating. Both leaders have served as a pressure release valve to lower tensions consistently over the past two years.
I expect these patterns will remain constant at least through the 2024 US presidential election. For Taiwan, this means there likely will be broad continuity in America’s overall posture toward China and toward cross-Strait relations. Washington will be interested in advancing US-Taiwan trade ties and bolstering Taiwan’s deterrent capacity, but in ways that are in keeping with longstanding policy and that maximize impact while minimizing provocation. For its part, Beijing will be focused on Taiwan’s 2024 elections and how they will play in them.
So, while US-China tensions clearly are rising and risk of conflict is above zero, I would caution against falling prey to doomsday predictions. The sky is not falling and war between nuclear-armed powers is not near. Even so, the shadow of intensifying great power rivalry certainly will be felt in Taiwan.
Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he also holds the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy program.
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