These are dangerous times for East Asia and Beijing has a critical role in cooling tensions. US President Donald Trump’s administration is pressuring regional governments to join its anti-Beijing push, a policy that could cause divisions and deepen uncertainty. Chinese officials, aware that worsening ties and the ramped-up military actions accompanying them could too easily spin out of control, have set aside tough rhetoric and adopted conciliatory tones towards Washington. Their calls for dialogue to de-escalate tensions have to be heeded as armed conflict is in no one’s interest. Chinese officials are worried that the United States could too easily goad them into a military misstep or even fire the first shot – which is why pilots and naval officers have been ordered to exercise restraint in the rising numbers of stand-offs with American planes and warships. Foremost among them are Politburo member Yang Jiechi, considered China’s leading diplomat, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Foreign Vice-Minister Le Yucheng, who have called on Beijing and Washington to seize opportunities for cooperation, temper rhetoric and provocative actions, and keep lines of communication open. China has core interests it will not compromise on and red lines that cannot be crossed, but that does not mean it is willing to blindly go into armed battle. Beijing keen to resume South China Sea talks after Pompeo’s ‘unlawful’ comments Hardliners in Trump’s administration want to prevent China’s economic and technological rise at all costs and have convinced the president to decouple and diminish its influence. In an election year with the president struggling in opinion polls in large part due to his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, he has been only too willing to follow their advice. But as American warships and fighter jets and spy planes are deployed as a further show of strength and resolve, the possibility of accidental fire or collision mounts. The greatest risk is in the disputed South China Sea, which Trump officials shifted course on last month by contending Beijing’s territorial claims to most of the waters were unlawful and that Washington stood with its “Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources”. But governments are wary about choosing sides when Beijing is so important to trade and investment. They have to wonder how genuine the US commitment is and whether they are simply being used as pawns for Trump’s re-election bid. Beijing and Asian governments know that military misadventure would be fatal to the development, growth and prosperity of the region. American pressure has to be resisted and up-to-date protocols and regular dialogue assured to avoid the chances of a misstep, miscalculation or worse.