Last week, I covered the development as to why China initially shunned a proposed visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to the country. The visit was delayed, but the main points as to why that happened remain and carried over into the subsequent meeting in Tianjin, which mirrored the fiery confrontation that happened in Alaska in March.
In this exchange, China’s deputy foreign minister Xie Feng sternly threw down the law to the US, and his message was clear: China is aggravated by what it perceives as a blatant disrespect for its own interests by a United States who is hell bent on pursuing hegemony and competition against it at all costs.
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In the backdrop of all this hostility, Beijing sees Biden’s premise that the US can sometimes “cooperate” with China as shallow and empty rhetoric which does not neutralize or balance the underlying antagonism which Washington vents towards it. Xie proceeded to condemn America for vilifying China as an “imaginary enemy”.
The showdown has led a number of media and political commentators to signify that the relationship between the two countries is locked in a downwards spiral, that the end of Trump was not in fact a game changer, and China is subsequently hardening its resolve, as evidenced by the verbal berating displayed during the meetings.
So where is the US-China relationship heading? And can it be saved? China’s official position is that it is not actually seeking a global rivalry with America, but that Washington is consciously opting for such an antagonistic relationship for a multitude of reasons, which China is forced to respond to.
In some ways, it is a classic example of how “geopolitical competition” has arisen throughout history, as major powers find that their national interests clash and they descend into a vicious cycle of distrust, entrenchment and an inability to compromise.
This phenomenon between an existing power and a rising power is often referred to as the “Thucydides Trap” – a term taken from Ancient Greece which argues such geopolitical competition has a high, although not always inevitable, risk of descending into war. But will that happen in this case?
Certainly, the cycle of confrontation is hotting up, and the rhetoric, at least, is fierce, and for many analysts, the confrontation at Tianjin was confirmation of that, as much as it was in Alaska.
While China argues it is happy to co-exist with the United States, on the other hand its own red lines concerning its economy, its national sovereignty, and ideology now fundamentally clash with the US to a point where a thaw appears to be very difficult to achieve, if not a non-starter in many aspects.
Beijing says it wants to be treated with respect and laid out a number of demands. But when it comes down to the details, fulfilling those would mean enormous compromises in how the US operates its foreign policy interests, and vice versa for anything the US demands of China. Would either side give up, for example, their stake on Taiwan?
Herein lies the problem. This reduced room for compromise means the two sides inevitably become locked in a cycle of mutual responses and hostility, and suspicion that their opponent is pursuing malign intent against them and must be dealt with. We just saw an example of that as before the Sherman meeting, China unleashed a series of counter-sanctions against the US for sanctions over Hong Kong last week. China argues it is responding in kind to America; the US predictably replies this is unacceptable.