Avoiding catastrophe will be the true test of fractured US-China relations

The author is the Freeman Chair in Chinese Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Close supporters of US-China relations have become accustomed to both whiplash and cognitive dissonance.

First the whiplash.

A little over a week ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to travel to Beijing on a long-awaited visit that many hoped would begin the process of erecting “guard rails” for the troubled bilateral relationship. But the appearance of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana not only derailed the trip, but pushed relations to their most tense point since August, when the People’s Liberation Army launched ballistic missiles in protest at the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fired near Taiwan.

The prospects for Blinken’s rescheduled trip are bleak, partly due to Beijing’s actions following the incident. After issuing a rare statement of “regret,” government officials went on the offensive, criticizing the US for destroying the balloon and calling US actions “irresponsible and seriously wrong.” In a recent display of irritation, Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, refused to answer calls from Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.

Next, the cognitive dissonance.

Political consequences of the balloon in Washington included a unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives condemning the “brazen violation of the sovereignty of the United States.” But the US Commerce Department reported that bilateral trade hit a record $690 billion last year, with America’s deficit with China growing by nearly $30 billion.

So how do we do justice to the reality that relations are characterized on the one hand by diplomatic crises and heightened military tensions and on the other hand by growing economic interdependence?

If the presence of a Chinese surveillance balloon in US airspace and the risks of a military conflict over Taiwan suggest this is a new Cold War, this is an odd one. As the two superpowers battle rival ideologies for global leadership, they also engage in an apocalyptic economic collaboration.

But maybe that’s the point. While it’s hard not to apply the Cold War label to the US-China relationship today, it offers little clarity as to where the two are headed. If they can manage the proliferation of security and geopolitical dislocations and the growing frequency of flashpoints, then this version of the Cold War might look more like the 1970s detente than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

To do this, however, each side must confront and control their own distinct pathologies.

The challenge for the US is to transcend its toxic, often debilitating domestic politics and focus on building a better global order for the 21st century that accommodates China. As the media and political circus surrounding the surveillance balloon has shown, America tends towards popular and political hyperventilation and hysteria precisely where seriousness and composure are required. While the Biden administration has shown remarkable composure in handling recent events, the same cannot be said of Congress and much of the media establishment, who have attempted to garner political points and gain views by using the balloon and its meaning played up.

The US will face crises far greater than a surveillance balloon as it rubs shoulders with an increasingly assertive China, and it cannot rest on the laurels of moral justice alone. Even where Beijing is the clear aggressor, as in so many areas, including its threats against Taiwan, the US bears the burden of effective crisis management dictated by the weight of global leadership. Moreover, even US allies and partners who share concerns about China’s military warfare still desire stable US-China relations.

Beijing’s challenges are even greater, driven by its autocratic, centralized system under Xi Jinping. As Xi’s power and ambitions have increased, so has his seeming inability to see how China’s more aggressive foreign policy has drawn resentment from countries in its neighborhood and beyond. From Japan’s historic surge in defense spending and the recalibration of its national security strategy to tensions along the Sino-India border, Beijing is catalyzing a growing militarization in Asia, largely through close US allies responding to its belligerence.

Xi’s government claims it wants to put bilateral relations on a stable footing, but its behavior since the balloon’s discovery belies this. The same is true of China’s steady support for Russia since it invaded Ukraine. If Xi travels to Moscow this spring, which he likely will, it will sever China’s ties with the US and Europe. Finally, if Beijing uses a possible trip to Taiwan by US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy to once again intimidate Taiwan with missile overflights, it will deepen the consensus in Democratic capitals that the Chinese leadership poses a threat.

While two decades ago it appeared that US-China relations would be defined by growing economic ties, today it seems that they will be defined by security challenges and crises. So the goal is to push this new cold war straight in the direction of detente. There is a clear need for the two powers to work together on common transnational challenges. But the state of bilateral relations is so bleak that the real test of both leaderships, for now and for the foreseeable future, will be their ability to dodge disaster.

https://www.ft.com/content/f794b181-b774-40d4-a763-5f41024d9afe Avoiding catastrophe will be the true test of fractured US-China relations

Adam Bradshaw

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