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As tensions rise, can China and United States succeed in even talking?

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As America’s second most senior diplomat met her Chinese counterpart this week to reassure Beijing that the United States did not seek confrontation, the People’s Liberation Army Navy was preparing one of its most realistic beach landing drills in recent history.

Chinese state television said the latest exercises included drones, amphibious assault vehicles, self-propelled artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers. According to the South China Morning Post, China has held 20 naval exercises aimed at capturing islands in the first half of 2021, compared to just 13 in the whole of 2020.

Foreign analysts disagree over whether such drills truly presage conflict, potentially over Taiwan. Earlier this year, China’s President Xi Jinping said the island, which Beijing has long regarded as a rogue province, “must and will” return to mainland control.

What is not in doubt however, is that almost across the board China is adopting increasingly coercive tactics to get its way with allies, adversaries and those it views as in between. It’s a dynamic the United States and its regional and global partners have yet to find a strategy to manage.

U.S. officials had hoped this week’s meeting between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin would mark a turning point in relations after a tense meeting in Alaska earlier this year.

Ideally, they hoped it would also be a step towards a bilateral meeting between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden – but talk of any such meeting was nowhere to be found amongst comments issued by both sides, suggesting it was either rejected or barely discussed.

CONFRONTATION OR CONTAINMENT
Instead, they were confronted with a list of aggressive Chinese demands – including that the United States and allies revoke sanctions on Communist Party officials, visa bans on Chinese students and limitations on the activities of China’s Confucian institutes, as well as cutting back on criticism of Beijing’s human rights record, particularly in Hong Kong and with its Uighur Muslim minority.

U.S. officials had hoped Beijing could be persuaded to separates the issues on which it disagrees with Washington – such as the South China Sea and human rights – from others on which the two nations might work together, particularly climate ahead of November’s COP-26 summit in Scotland. The language of Chinese officials and media, however, could scarcely have been blunter.

In his post-meeting comments, Vice Foreign Minister Xie accused the United States of “coercive diplomacy” and suggested Washington was in no position to deliver lectures on human rights given that it was once engaged in “genocide against Native Americans”. Sherman described the meeting in somewhat measured terms, calling it “frank and open”.

It was a far cry from the early weeks of the Biden administration, when China appeared to hold some hope that relations might improve after deteriorating dramatically under Donald Trump.

ASIA PIVOT
Sherman’s visit, however, was only one part of a three-pronged U.S. diplomatic offensive this week in Asia, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visiting Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam while Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited India.

In a lecture in Singapore, Austin warned that China’s actions threaten the sovereignty of other regional nations, saying Washington was committed to “building partnerships that guarantee the vital interests of all nations”. While such words might reassure those in the region who had worried the Biden administration might ignore Asia given its more domestic focus, Chinese media described them as a U.S. attempt to build an “anti-China coalition”.

There is, of course, some truth in that. Washington has worked hard to corral regional powers as one of the central players in the U.S.-India-Australia-Japan “Quad” as well as having multiple formal and informal agreements with other regional nations.

Austin also delivered some of Washington’s strongest comments yet on commitment to Taiwan, saying the United States “would not flinch” from building the island’s ability to defend itself. U.S. defence publications have reported on recent war games suggesting U.S. forces might lose any war with China to defend Taiwan, with military leaders increasingly focused on that potential conflict as Biden withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

On artificial intelligence, cyber security and access to natural resources such as rare earths, there is further real nervousness in Washington that China may be drawing ahead, although assessing the true situation is rather harder.

Ultimately, the problem may lie in fundamentally irreconcilable agendas. For all China’s protestations that it does not seek global dominance, it unambiguously views itself as a rising power with the right to do as it wishes – most particularly when it comes to its own population and immediate geographic neighbourhood, including reasserting control over Taiwan.

Neither are areas where the United States believes it could or should back down. That makes trust between Washington and Beijing almost impossible to achieve – but somehow, both should realise they must keep talking.

Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues

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