The U.S.-China rift is only growing wider

Tags : USA, China, Russia, Ukraine,

Analysis by Ishaan Tharoor

Last month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a 4,000-word tract titled “U.S. Hegemony and Its Perils.” The document, which was sent out by the Chinese Embassy to journalists in Washington, including Today’s WorldView, purported to present the “relevant facts” of a near-century of American interference and meddling on the world stage. It’s a catalogue of grievances that casts the United States as a hypocritical superpower, advancing its own self-interests on the pretext of high-minded values, while leaving a trail of abuse and harm in its wake.

Whatever the validity of these historical claims, the real Chinese animus is about the present. “Clinging to the Cold War mentality, the United States has ramped up bloc politics and stoked conflict and confrontation,” the document warned, echoing the near-constant refrain from Chinese officials about current U.S. policy.

Just weeks prior, there had been glimmers of rapprochement between the two countries. The United States and China were readying for talks that would, in the White House’s words, help set “guardrails” on a rocky yet vital relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping, it appeared, wanted to embark on his third term in power with a spirit of pragmatism, and had set about softening his country’s conspicuously aggressive “wolf warrior” foreign policy.

Then a Chinese spy balloon came along and floated over the United States before getting shot down over the Atlantic Ocean. The incident seemed to close the window for a diplomatic opening and led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrapping a major trip to China. The days since have only seen a hardening of lines between Washington and Beijing.

The pall over U.S.-China ties grew darker this week with official comments from Xi and Foreign Minister Qin Gang. On Monday, the Chinese president called out the United States as a rival power seeking to stymie China’s growth. The remarks, made to China’s top political advisory body during an annual legislative session, represented an unusually explicit public riposte of the United States by the Chinese leader.

“Western countries — led by the U.S. — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” Xi said.

The next day, Qin picked up the baton, pointing a finger at Washington’s supposed collision course with Beijing. “If the United States does not pump the brakes and continues to go down the wrong road, no number of guardrails will be able to stop [the relationship] from running off-road and flipping over, and it is inevitable that we will fall into conflict and confrontation,” he said at a news conference on the sidelines of China’s rubber-stamp parliament.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby appeared to brush off Beijing’s rhetoric at a briefing Tuesday, indicating that there had been no real change in the status quo. “We seek a strategic competition with China. We do not seek conflict,” he told reporters. “We aim to compete and we aim to win that competition with China, but we absolutely want to keep it at that level.”

Yet elsewhere in Washington, China may see a more hostile view. Last week, the new House select committee on China convened, trotting out a panel of experts who are mostly hawks on China while entertaining talk of effectively “decoupling” the world’s two largest economies. Matthew Pottinger, a former Trump administration official, told the lawmakers that they should acknowledge that China has been waging a form of a Cold War against the United States and that they themselves should not shy away from viewing the challenge posed by Beijing in such terms.

The Chinese Communist Party “should be thought of as a hungry shark that will keep eating until its nose bumps into a metal barrier. Sharks aren’t responsive to mood music,” Pottinger said in his written testimony. “But nor do they take it personally when they see divers building a shark cage. For them it’s just business. It’s what they do. The more resolutely and unapologetically we take steps to defend our national security, the more that boundaries will be respected and the more stable the balance of power is likely to be.”

More striking, perhaps, than this strident language is the bipartisan backing for this sort of approach toward China. In a capital marred by bitter polarization, there’s genuine consensus on the perceived threat posed by China. But a lack of rigorous high-level foreign policy debate may prove to be a problem, some analysts argue.

“This isn’t an evidence-driven exercise to identify America’s long-term interests and how China relates to them,” a former U.S. official told Washington Post columnist Max Boot, referring to the House committee. “It is a propaganda exercise that Beijing would find easily recognizable.”

For now, flash points abound. The United States and China see themselves at odds over the war in Ukraine, where the latter may yet choose to supply the flagging Russian war machine with lethal aid. Such a move will trigger an angry reaction from the United States and its allies, but Qin and other Chinese officials pointed to a supposed double standard, noting the United States’ long record of weapons sales to Taiwan. Tensions over the island democracy have spiked over the course of the war in Ukraine, while China’s relations with Europe have also soured as it continues to help prop up Russia’s sanctioned economy.

Critics of Beijing’s widely derided peace plan for Ukraine see in some of its proposals — such as an end to Western military assistance to Kyiv — a template for the future conditions China may need to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan. “If Taiwan, like Ukraine, can draw on extended external military equipment, training, and real-time intelligence support, all bets are off,” wrote Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, referring to the prospects of a Chinese amphibious invasion. “And so, Beijing remains focused on degrading the ability of international actors to inject strategic risk into Chinese decision-making, as well as on exploiting cleavages among U.S. allies.”

Other experts argue Washington needs to lower the temperature with China for its and Taiwan’s own sake. “Efforts to reduce Beijing’s sense of urgency over Taiwan could help limit the degree of China-Russia alignment, strengthening the overall U.S. strategic position,” wrote Jessica Chen Weiss, a China scholar at Cornell University. “And Taiwan needs more time to muster the resources and political will to develop an asymmetric, whole-of-society defense.”

Ultimately, Xi and Qin’s remarks this week were as much political as they were geopolitical. Faced with a slumping economy battered by the pandemic, Xi and his cadres are attempting a sweeping overhaul of China’s financial system and government bureaucracy.

“Xi Jinping’s comment about containment may heighten tensions with the United States, but he is mainly speaking to a domestic audience,” Andrew Collier, managing director of Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, told the New York Times. “He’s trying to foster the country’s high-tech firms both for economic growth and to handle decoupling at a time when China is facing severe economic headwinds. Beating the nationalist drum is a politically savvy way to achieve these goals.”


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