Confrontation or Dialogue: Deciphering the US-China War/Peace Split Screen


Currently, the relationship between the United States and China presents as a split screen: On the one hand, there are the dangerous encounters between combat aircraft and warships of both sides, along with the attendant mutual recriminations; on the other, the U.S. is actively sending special envoys to Beijing in hopes of re-engaging with China, and the mainland, too, is of a mind to invite the respective American secretaries of finance and economics to visit. The two seemingly conflicting relationships are in fact not entirely contradictory.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Burns was recently reported to have made a secret visit to Beijing ahead of the Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, and at the summit press conference, President Joe Biden said he was expecting an imminent thaw in U.S.-China relations. Biden’s optimistic assessment was based on a meeting in Vienna between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Wang Yi, Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, but also on Burns’ report. Soon after, the U.S. dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink and National Security Council Senior Director Sarah Beran to Beijing to meet with mainland Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu.

For a while, it seemed that the U.S. and China were truly ready to bury the hatchet, let post-balloon incident bygones be bygones, and welcome some positive interaction. However, a close encounter between the U.S. military and a People’s Liberation Army aircraft has suddenly put this expectation on ice.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated his desire for dialogue with China. But on the same day, the USS Chung-Hoon and the Canadian frigate HMCS Montréal were passing through the Taiwan Strait when the Chinese 052D destroyer “Suzhou,” which was accompanying them, suddenly cut into the U.S. ship’s path in an “unsafe manner,” forcing the Chung-Hoon to slow down in order to avoid a collision. The two ships came within 150 yards (137 meters) of each other, and the U.S. alleged that the PLA’s behavior violated maritime rules for safe passage in international waters.

On May 26, a similar situation occurred in the international airspace of the South China Sea when a Chinese J-16 fighter jet attempted to intercept a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, flying directly in front of the RC-135’s nose and forcing the U.S. craft to fly in its wake.

On June 5, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council said that recent incidents between U.S and Chinese forces reflected the “increasing level of aggressiveness” by the PLA, which increased the risk of “somebody getting hurt” and was “unacceptable” to both the U.S. and China. But a State Department spokesman also made it clear that he hoped to continue a “predictable relationship” with China, and that “President Biden has been clear: We don’t seek any kind of new cold war, and our competition must not spill over into conflict.”

The two official statements from the U.S. appear to be different, but in fact they reflect a single attitude: Since there is no channel of military interaction between the U.S. and China, there is no channel for prevention or mechanism to deal with dangerous encounters such as those in the air or at sea, making the U.S. all the more anxious to interact with the Chinese Communist Party. And now, on the eve of a major counteroffensive in Ukraine, the U.S. must ensure that China cannot assist Russia at this time, and that the PLA cannot cause trouble in the Taiwan Strait.

From Beijing’s point of view, military planes arriving for reconnaissance and American warships crossing the Taiwan Strait are issues that it has been negotiating with the U.S. and complaining about for a long time. Beijing knows that these are not easy problems to solve, but right now, it needs to restore relations with the U.S. as soon as possible, not only to avoid military conflicts, but more importantly, to promote economic recovery. Recently, Tesla founder Elon Musk visited the mainland and received an exceptional welcome from the authorities, as did J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, General Motors’ Mary Barra, and Starbucks’ Laxman Narasimhan. Beijing’s high-profile receptions of such corporate executives are clearly intended to reassure foreign companies and encourage them to continue investing.

Beijing has also extended frequent invitations to senior officials in finance and economics, in addition to American corporate heads, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and even Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Apart from hoping to put foreign investors’ minds at ease, the mainland is also trying to take the lead in matters of trade and economics, as a divide-and-rule strategy directed at the U.S. government. The U.S. is naturally aware of this, and a few days ago, the White House decided that Secretary of State Antony Blinken should be the first to visit.

The relationship between the U.S. and China right now resembles a split-screen picture indeed, with intense competition in high technology and military affairs, but at the same time with dialogue to ensure that the competition does not turn into conflict or confrontation. It seems that both the U.S. and mainland China are willing to reduce tensions. The recent news that Blinken is planning to visit China next week and meet with senior officials such as Chinese President Xi Jinping may be an opportunity to start the process of cooling down the dialogue. The question is, with the U.S. and China toggling screens, is there any call for Taiwan’s stop-motion opposition?

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About Matthew McKay 96 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. Matthew is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting in the UK, and of the Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters in Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

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