Tensions between the U.S. and China are flaring. Again.
In the span of just a few days, the U.S. has hardened its stance on China’s encroachment in the South China Sea, issued sanctions over abuses of Uighurs in Xinjiang, announced visa restrictions on employees of some of China’s largest tech firms, and passed laws threatening further sanctions over rights violations in Hong Kong, while also revoking the city’s preferential trade status in the wake of the introduction of a controversial Beijing-drafted security law.
China, in characteristically outraged fashion, has responded in kind, accusing Washington of “flexing its muscles” in a maritime dispute that doesn’t concern it, issuing sanctions of its own against U.S. diplomats and lawmakers, and vowing further sanctions to come over the reclassification of Hong Kong.
Friction between the world’s two great powers is certainly nothing new, but the intensity and frequency with which the U.S. and China have traded blows in recent weeks has led some to speculate that something bigger is afoot, with some even invoking a once-implausible term: cold war.
“We are definitely facing a unique deterioration in U.S.-China relations at the moment,” said Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer of Chinese Studies at Australia’s Monash University.
The United States has long objected to China’s unilateral claims to, and militarization of, the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. But this week the U.S. made it official, announcing it would be formally aligning its national policy with a 2016 international court ruling that found China’s claims to the Sea to be legally indefensible.
“Beijing’s approach has been clear for years,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday, accusing China of pursuing a philosophy of “might makes right” to undermine the rights of other nations with legally established claims to the Sea, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
“The [People’s Republic of China’s] predatory world view has no place in the 21st century,” he added.
China, predictably, responded with a fierce rebuke of Washington, accusing it of “stirring up tension and inciting confrontation” in an arena in which it holds no stake under the “pretext of preserving stability.”
Carrico, noting the militarization of the waters—both by China, which has rushed to build military bases on specks of land claimed by other countries, and by the U.S., which routinely sends navy vessels cruising through the Sea to assert other nations’ freedom of navigation—had raised the possibility of a miscalculation sparking an armed conflict between the countries.
The South China Sea, he told VICE News, is “one of the more dangerous potential flashpoints in this relationship.”
Katherine Tseng, a research associate at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, told VICE that both countries were pushing competing narratives that presented each as the good-faith actor.
The U.S.’s rhetoric carried “confrontational implications,” with Washington using the South China Sea as a “convenient instrument” to “reify the view that China is developing to be a hegemonic power,” both regionally and globally.
China’s rhetoric, she added, reverses the story, with the U.S. cast as the hegemonic imperial power intervening in China’s rightful control over the Sea.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s recent willingness to deploy sanctions in expectation of quick results could lead to the perception that it was pursuing a “might trumps reason” strategy, more or less the very same criticism it leveled at China.
But the South China Sea developments are only one aspect of the ever-increasing tensions.
“You cannot simply look at the South China Sea incident in isolation,” said William Choong, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, noting that the United States was executing a “full-court press” on China.
Choong noted that in the U.S., the sentiment toward China has “turned sour” across party lines, making China a politically convenient punching bag for both Democrats and Republicans alike.
But Monash’s Carrico said that while the U.S. certainly deserves blame for taking a tougher stance, he tends to attribute the deterioration largely to “the reliably confrontational stance” that China has taken on a host of issues in recent years—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea.
“It is not so much that the U.S. is confronting China, so much as waking up to the unique challenges posed by the fact that a rising power is engaged in systematic aggression and crimes against humanity,” Carrico said.
Meanwhile, the dire appraisal of relations between the two nations isn’t limited to foreign observers. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that the US-China relationship is the worst it’s been since 1979, when diplomatic ties were reestablished.
Still, Choong said he would not go so far as to draw direct parallels between the U.S.-USSR Cold War and the present-day U.S.-China relationship.
“If you look at the U.S. and the USSR, they were in two different universes. Their power bases, economics, were completely sealed off from each other, and [they] fought proxy wars,” he said.
For a new cold war to emerge, he said, the U.S. and China would need to decouple. But as acrimonious as their relationship is, each still depends economically on the other. To truly decouple the U.S.—and its allies—from China would require a “surgical removal.”
Tseng, meanwhile, said that while there are changes afoot as to how the international community engages with China, she does not believe they will be lasting.
“In the short term, it appears to be deterioration, in order to break the original engagement pattern,” she said. “But just like a swinging pendulum, some conciliation and compromise could be expected in the next stage.”
Choong, however, noted China’s inexorable progress in most objective measures of national power—from military might to economic clout—saying he doesn’t see Beijing changing tack anytime soon.
In fact, he said, barring some catastrophic internal collapse, the West’s criticism will only make the Chinese more resolute in its campaign of national rejuvenation, with a sentiment already taking hold among Chinese citizens that their nation’s time has come.
“And nothing will throw China off track from this path,” Choong said.
“If you think of it from this perspective, the Chinese are never going to back off from the South China China Sea issue. The Chinese are never going to back off from Hong Kong, or the Senkaku Islands dispute,” he said.
And not just for reasons of national interest, he added, but also national pride.
“That’s why we are between a rock and a hard place. That’s why you can’t placate the Chinese whereby they will be less assertive and aggressive. And there is no way you can be so hard on the Chinese that they will back down,” Choong said. “No matter what, the Chinese will continue on this path.”