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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

 China’s President Xi Jinping speaks at the “Senior Chinese Leader Event” held by the National Committee on US-China Relations and the US-China Business Council on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., November 15, 2023. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Pool
China’s President Xi Jinping speaks at the “Senior Chinese Leader Event” held by the National Committee on US-China Relations and the US-China Business Council on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., November 15, 2023. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Pool

U.S.-China

A November meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to reset what had been a sharp slide in the two countries’ relations. But their core interests still collide in the Asia Pacific region – and Taiwanese elections and South China Sea tensions could test the thaw.

Beijing and Washington have been angling for some time to ratchet down tensions. Xi wants to focus on the ailing Chinese economy and forestall further U.S. trade restrictions. (Washington has recently tightened limits on the sale to China of high-end technology, adding to an array of other tariffs and restrictions.) The Biden administration wants some calm ahead of the 2024 U.S. vote and to reassure other capitals worried about hostility between the two giants that it can responsibly manage competition.

In early 2023, diplomatic efforts stalled when a Chinese spy balloon drifted over the U.S. mainland and caused a media frenzy before the U.S. shot it down. Months later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who cancelled a trip after “balloongate”, visited Beijing, setting the stage for the Biden-Xi summit.

That meeting went well. Biden got promises that the two countries would work together on curbing fentanyl coming into the U.S. and, the day before the summit, the two countries pledged to work together to tackle climate change. Importantly, Beijing also agreed to reopen military communication channels to help manage risks of unintended clashes as the two militaries jostle in the seas and skies around China. Xi got a win at home by showing he had a handle on Beijing’s most important bilateral relationship.

Overall, though, the rivalry’s fundamentals show no sign of abating. Hawks in both capitals see competition as zero-sum. Loose talk of war normalises the idea. In the Asia Pacific, Beijing’s pursuit of what it sees as the greater clout it deserves as the region’s preeminent power runs directly into Washington’s determination to maintain its own military dominance. Several Asian capitals, spooked by Beijing’s growing assertiveness and seeing in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine a precedent, have leaned into security ties with Washington, even as they value trade with China.

The South China Sea, where Chinese maritime claims overlap with those of other littoral states, among them the Philippines, a U.S. ally, looks increasingly precarious. Manila points with frustration to Chinese coast guard and maritime militia boats patrolling waters that, in 2016, a special tribunal ruled are Philippine. Chinese ships are using more aggressive tactics, including water cannons and acoustic devices. They shadow Philippine vessels in ways that court incident, prompting boats from the two countries to collide in October and December. U.S. security guarantees to the Philippines and increased military presence in contested areas in principle deter Beijing but also bring risks. For China, maneuvers at sea signal to the region determination to defend what it sees as its national sovereignty. Chinese vessels or planes might even start shadowing their U.S. counterparts.

Taiwan, too, is a flashpoint. Beijing believes the island should be reunified with the Chinese mainland, ideally peacefully, though it does not rule out force. Washington’s “one China” policy aims for a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status without prejudging the outcome; its longstanding “strategic ambiguity” leaves vague whether it would come to Taiwan’s defence. But louder voices in Washington suggest offering Taiwan stronger backing. Though China is unlikely to invade any time soon – indeed, breaching the island’s defences would be tough –the more that Xi senses the “one China” policy eroding and the window for unification closing, the more the calculus could lean toward war.

Taiwanese elections in January may see the current vice president, William Lai, whom China brands a separatist, assume power. Beijing might turn up the pressure on Taipei – upping the already large numbers of Chinese warships and aircraft around the island or reimposing barriers to Taiwanese goods, for example – in an effort to push the new government toward greater deference to Beijing. Taipei has weathered such antics before, and Lai has signalled his intent to pursue the current president’s cautious cross-strait policy. But should he misspeak under pressure – a statement he made last July suggested he might seek formal diplomatic ties with the United States, for example – or strike what Beijing perceives as an overly antagonistic tone in his May inauguration speech, China could take things up another notch. The Biden administration, particularly in an election year, may make statements that irritate Beijing; anti-China U.S. legislators may table draft bills contradicting the “one China” policy.

For now, probably the biggest danger is that Chinese and U.S. planes or ships collide. According to the Pentagon, the number of risky encounters over the last two years exceed those in the preceding two decades. Warmer atmospherics after the Biden-Xi meeting – and hopefully the military-to-military channel – provide a buffer but would only go so far in the event of a mishap, especially one that involves casualties. The last such incident, when two planes hit each other in 2001, killing a Chinese airman and forcing a U.S. plane to crash land on China’s Hainan island, took delicate talks to find a solution that let both sides save face. It’s hard to see space for that kind of diplomacy today.

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