Permacrisis can’t be the future of US–China relations

Editorial Board, ANU

As Paul Heer writes in the first of this week’s two lead articles, ‘[w]e now know that this rapid sequence of events reflected a rush to judgement and action before the facts were clear’. The balloon’s drift over North America wasn’t the deliberate provocation it was initially cast as — more likely the result of a spy balloon blown off-course — though in doing so it ‘exposed a Chinese intelligence program that would violate international law by operating within other countries’ territorial airspace’.

The peril to US national security from the balloon’s overflight didn’t match the overheated rhetoric. But it was alarming in how it revealed ‘mutual distrust, latent hostility, a failure to communicate and the adverse impact of internal politics on how the two sides deal with each other’, writes Heer, and ‘reinforced their exaggerated assessments of each other’s strategic intentions’.

Given the current climate, what happens if something similar occurs not over the skies of the American west, but in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea?

Heer is on the money in arguing that ‘[i]t is imperative that [Washington and Beijing] reinvigorate the process of substantive engagement that Biden and Xi agreed to at their last meeting in 2022, and supplement that with serious efforts to establish bilateral mechanisms for crisis management’.

A real danger is that US policy can shape Beijing’s political options and incentives, in ways that are ultimately damaging to US interests. As Harrison Prétat writes in the second of this week’s lead articles, ‘China’s actions will be dictated by Beijing’s perceptions. If Beijing concludes current US initiatives are the beginning of a containment effort, Beijing may see now as its only chance to secure control over disputed territory or maritime areas’. For this reason, ‘Washington needs to complement its deterrent measures with assurance mechanisms that … demonstrate to Beijing that risky military action is not necessary to preserve its core interests’, in Taiwan or elsewhere.

The United States could benefit from reassuring itself, too — specifically about the reality that the stakes involved in competition with China aren’t existential. Too many in the US system are ‘underestimating our strengths and our rival’s weaknesses’, says David Rothkopf. That’s a disservice to American democracy, statecraft and economic dynamism. As Edward Luce wrote in a widely-shared Financial Times column last week, ‘[t]he US still holds more of the cards. It has plenty of allies, a global system that it designed, better technology and younger demographics’.

The United States, in other words, is well-equipped to thrive even in a multipolar world in which its relative economic and military dominance is less pronounced. As Jude Blanchette of CSIS observed, ‘if you were an alien’ listening in on some recent rhetoric from US politicians on China, ‘you would think the United States is a pathetic, weak, scared nation, which is being beset by an omnicompetent, omnipresent enemy’. The 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which falls this week, is the perfect moment to reflect upon the dangers of US policymakers succumbing to an exaggerated sense of threat.

The entrenchment of a Chinese sphere of influence in East Asia would be unwelcome for all sorts of reasons, but it is unnecessary to risk World War III in order to prevent that outcome: globalisation and multilateralism can do a lot of the work that diplomatic braggadocio and military deterrence are now vainly attempting.

The growth within ‘Altasia’ and greater integration of the regional and global economy all blunt the ability of China to use lopsided bilateral trade ties as an instrument of coercion. US involvement in Asia Pacific integration initiatives would be a boon in this regard. But the United States’ Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) doesn’t cut it in terms of seriously lowering the barriers to trade and investment between the United States and Asia, and US complicity in the erosion of the multilateral trading system and its own turn to protectionism just opens strategic space for China to pose as a friend of globalisation through its positive role within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and by seeking membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement.

The reinforcement of multilateralism and the ASEAN-centred security cooperation architecture offers the opportunity to build a space for dialogue and confidence (if not trust) between the United States and China and, most crucially of all, institutionalise a role for non-great power stakeholders in collectively negotiating the rules and norms that shape all parties’ conduct towards one another, including that of the great powers.

The consolidation of a Cold-War mindset in Washington — a place where ideas can and should be openly contested — would be a huge stumbling block. That the United States is already entering its political cycle makes the problem worse. The conversation in the United States all too often reflects the defective thinking that Jessica Chen Weiss identified in an important essay in 2022, in which she argues that the United States was spooking itself into an all-encompassing struggle with China without any clear idea of what victory would mean.

This danger should galvanise Asia’s middle and smaller powers to take a leadership role in building out an institutional order that can preserve their prosperity and sovereignty in the multipolar regional order that China’s economic rise has already created.