The more American and Chinese officials proclaim their innocent intentions toward each other, the deeper the level of mistrust they generate. China watchers worry about strategic miscalculation by one side or the other.
Understatement, subtlety, and nuance are the hallmarks of diplomacy and are Washington’s preferred tools for avoiding confrontation with China. But when professions of benign intent don't reflect actions and policies, the parties can actually increase mutual suspicion.
Official candor on five key truths about US-China relations will likely contribute to a more mature bilateral relationship and could help halt a potential slide to conflict.
Beijing’s first regional interest is Taiwan, which it claims as part of China. Control of the island would extend Beijing’s reach an additional hundred miles into the Pacific and the South China Sea. In 1942, Japan used Taiwan to launch its invasion of the Philippines – where China is now aggressively pursuing territorial claims.
For 60 years, America has blocked China from seizing Taiwan, first when it was a dictatorship and now as a flourishing democracy. But when asked directly by Chinese officials in 1995, Washington said it no longer knows whether it will defend Taiwan. It has repeated that “strategic ambiguity” mantra ever since.
Beijing’s response has been less nuanced: It has acquired the naval, air, and cyber arsenal needed to attack Taiwan. To deter American involvement, it has developed area denial and anti-access weapons like attack submarines and the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missiles. Chinese generals have added nuclear threats against US cities in a Taiwan conflict.
Similarly, Beijing has claimed the South China Sea – which, since World War II, the US Navy has kept open to global commerce, including China’s – as a “core interest” like Taiwan and Tibet. When Beijing employs bullying tactics against countries with competing claims, it warns Washington not to interfere in China’s affairs. The United States takes no position on the merits of the claims as long as they are settled peacefully, and it has pledged to ensure freedom of navigation in the area.
China also vehemently protests America’s Asian bases and military exercises as further evidence of Washington’s strategic “encirclement” of China, rather than a natural reaction to its own increasingly assertive actions. Clearly, China wants the US out of the way as it seeks to work its will in Asia.
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