China-US relations

Washington talks unlikely to change course of China-US rivalry

  • Tensions between the world’s two biggest economies extend far beyond the trade war and could shape international politics for years to come, analysts say
  • Top level dialogue set to get under way on Friday
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2018, 5:48am

The rivalry between China and the United States extends far beyond their ongoing trade war and top-level diplomatic and security talks between the two countries in Washington are unlikely to change that, analysts have said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis will lead the US side in Friday’s talks with China’s top diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi, and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

The agenda is expected to cover the gamut of sensitive issues, from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Beijing’s militarisation of the contested waters, to its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

US ambassador to China Terry Branstad was quoted by Reuters as saying on Thursday that the two sides were expected to have “frank” exchanges on key topics, with the aim being “to avoid mistakes or accidents that can happen in the military arena”.

The talks come at a time when the tension between Washington and Beijing has risen to a point that if nothing is done to ease it, “sooner or later it risks getting out of control”, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in Singapore this week.

Similarly, former US treasury secretary Hank Paulson warned that as the divisions between the world’s two largest economies broadened there was a growing risk that a new “economic iron curtain” could descend between them.

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Besides the anxiety caused by the trade war, military tensions have also been rising.

In late September, Chinese and American warships came close to colliding in the South China Sea. Photographs and video footage showed the USS Decatur destroyer having to manoeuvre out of the way to avoid a collision when China’s guided-missile destroyer Lanzhou moved to within 41 metres (135 feet) of it.

Ahead of the talks in Washington, and an expected meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the end of the month, China’s Vice-President Wang Qishan said Beijing was ready to engage with Washington to resolve the trade war.

Yang, meanwhile, told US National Security Adviser John Bolton in a meeting at the White House this week that the two sides should manage their differences to ensure the success of the Xi-Trump summit.

He said they should also work to broaden their shared goals by increasing military communication and cooperating more in the fight against terrorism.

During his visit to Beijing on Thursday, Xi told Kissinger that China and the US needed to “accurately assess” each other’s strategic intentions amid the rising trade tensions.

The problem for Beijing, according to some analysts, is that the US is unlikely to be moved by its rhetoric on how the two sides can ease their trade tensions.

“It seems that the trade war has had more of a negative impact on China and this may explain why Beijing is seeking to come to the table and hammer out a deal with the US,” said James Floyd Downes, a lecturer in comparative politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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“[But] I think it’s highly unlikely that the Trump administration would agree to this demand to stop the bilateral trade war and back down. Primarily, this is because President Trump’s ‘America first’ policy seeks to reassert American dominance in the internal sphere of politics,” he said.

“This is another strategy for President Trump to further consolidate his white working-class voter base, by adopting such strategies towards China.”

Zhao Tong, a fellow with the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, was equally sceptical.

While neither China nor the US wanted the bilateral relationship to descend into a new cold war, the outcome of the dialogue was “highly uncertain”, he said.

“The two countries are at the start of a strategic competition that will have far-reaching implications for regional and global security and stability,” Zhao said.

“It requires both countries to develop empathy for each other’s thinking and perspective. Depending on how open minded the participants are, Friday’s talks could help to build empathy or create deeper distrust.”

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Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said the risk of a prolonged and icy stand-off between the two sides was real.

“[We may be facing] the beginning of a new cold war,” he said. “The US and China are becoming fiercely competitive across all domains … This is the hallmark of a cold war.”

Trump’s China policy was “not balanced by sufficient domestic opposition”, Zhang said, which meant that over time the “cold war-like competition will only intensify and become systemic”.