The past two weeks has offered some of the clearest signs by far of what the future may hold for the world when its two mightiest powers are determined to put up a fight. It started when Joe Biden , less than two months into his presidency, took a historic move on March 12 to host the first virtual summit of the “Quad” with leaders from Japan, India and Australia. From China’s perspective, the elevation of the budding military grouping from the era of former president Donald Trump basically has only one particular purpose in mind – to build an encirclement of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Top White House officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, have been busy in the past week with a shuttle diplomacy tour of Japan, South Korea and India, three of China’s strategically positioned neighbours. Alaska summit: for China and the US, a narrow road through deep divisions While the Biden administration has yet to unveil its national security strategy or a specific China policy, it has made no secret of its intention to revive America’s global leadership by bogging China down, albeit in a more sophisticated approach than its predecessor. The Biden team’s new thinking on China, summed up by Blinken early this month as “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”, seemed to have worked so far to restore trust among Washington’s wary allies. An example in hand was the European Union’s rare move on Monday to impose sanctions on Chinese Communist Party officials over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the first time since an arms embargo was put in place after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. It came on the eve of Blinken’s first official visit to Brussels to repair strained transatlantic relations with Europe and was quickly followed by similar sanctions from the US, Britain and Canada. While it could be argued that US-led international sanctions targeting individual Chinese officials and entities over Xinjiang and Hong Kong may be a bit too little, too late to make a real difference, such a concerted and highly symbolic move is still deeply disheartening for China. It is still early to tell if the Biden team can bridge the US-Europe divide and get the EU on board in its rivalry with China, but the Brussels sanctions indicated that the transatlantic rift is not irreparable. Washington’s efforts to focus on China’s poor human rights record and weaponise the issue against Beijing have found support in many European capitals and put China on the defensive diplomatically. To Beijing’s disappointment, Brussels has shown little incentive to change its hardening stance on Beijing or prioritise trade opportunities over human rights concerns, despite the EU’s recent landmark investment deal with China. In response, President Xi Jinping has doubled down on his ambitions for China’s global rise and proclaimed early this month that the country should be treated as an equal by world powers. His demand for the US to respect and accept China as an equal power appears to have greatly influenced the Alaska meeting last week. Both Yang Jiechi, Xi’s top foreign policy aide, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi were unusually combative while their American counterparts, Blinken and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, appeared largely diplomatic and more restrained throughout the two days of talks. At one point, a stern-faced Yang snapped at his American hosts, claiming the US was “not qualified to speak to China from a position of strength”, according to viral video clips posted online by state-controlled media. In another attempt to counter the US offensives, Beijing appears to have pinned its hopes on Moscow, rolling out the red carpet this week for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Wang and Lavrov condemned the joint sanctions by the US and its allies and denounced their meddling in China’s internal affairs on Xinjiang. The Biden administration’s cold-eyed approach on China and Beijing’s tit-for-tat reactions have further dimmed hopes of a major reset between the two powers. In a grim assessment of the US-China relations, Shi Yinhong, a respected scholar at Beijing’s Renmin University, said it was largely inevitable that China and the US would fall into the Thucydides trap of confrontation between a rising power and a ruling one. “The only factor uncertain or unknown at the moment is when or what twists and turns it would take for them to get there,” he said in an article early this month. Although China’s propaganda apparatus hailed Yang’s hawkish remarks in Alaska as turning a new chapter in US-China relations, tough rhetoric may change little on the ground. The nightmare reality remains and it is still up to Beijing to come up with a more effective strategy to deal with the Biden administration’s encirclement efforts. As China’s ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said last week: “You don’t have an effective foreign policy just by talking tough or playing tough. This is not the right way of doing diplomacy.” Only that time he was referring to Washington’s China policy.