Yuma Sun

Bigger problem with U.S., China is mutual distrust

Two sides need to concentrat­e on preventing further deteriorat­ion in relations

- The Guardian on relations between the U.S. and China: This editorial originally appeared in the Guardian, and is reprinted here via the Associated Press. Read more online at https://www.theguardia­n.com/

In the closing years of the cold war, as relations between the Soviet Union and U.S. thawed, Ronald Reagan adopted a Russian proverb: trust, but verify. These days, with Sino-u.s. relations chilling rather than warming, there is precious little trust, and limited ability to read the other’s intentions accurately.

Relations were deteriorat­ing long before the Chinese balloon floated into U.S. airspace and the military shot it down. Everyone knows that the U.S. spies on China and vice versa; it is also obvious, despite Beijing’s feigned outrage, that it would take swift action against a U.S. device appearing in its skies. Instead of promising jets are ready for action, countries would do better to reconsider what trade-offs they have made in security for convenienc­e and cost – as with the Chinese cameras used by British police.

Much more concerning than the actual events was the reaction to them. The Biden administra­tion stayed calm; less so Congress and the media. China decided to blame the

U.S., and its defense secretary refused to take a call from his counterpar­t, Lloyd Austin. The cancellati­on of the U.S. secretary of state’s trip to China was inevitable but bad news, since the hope was that it would put a floor under relations. Antony Blinken may now meet his counterpar­t at the Munich security conference and Joe Biden has said he will speak to Xi Jinping to “get to the bottom” of the affair. But the trajectory is worrying.

The echoes of the past may appear unmistakab­le. Alongside tensions over intelligen­ce gathering comes growing competitio­n for allies and partners around the world. But the strife this time is between two countries that, notwithsta­nding their trade war, saw trade rise to almost $2bn every day of last year.

Yet if this much of a storm can be generated over one dirigible, recall the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a U.S. surveillan­ce plane and People’s Liberation Army fighter jet collided, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and a 10-day standoff before the American crew were released. Now imagine that in the age of social media, conspiracy theories, amped-up nationalis­m and a vastly more confident China. It isn’t difficult: the U.S. and others have accused Chinese military aircraft of increasing­ly dangerous behavior in internatio­nal airspace near its territory.

The best hope is currently to contain rather than reverse the deteriorat­ion in relations. The political climate in the U.S. will only become more charged as the 2024 election approaches. China’s years of untrammele­d economic growth are well behind it; nationalis­m has been a useful alternativ­e narrative for the party. And while it has somewhat reined in its diplomatic rhetoric, it refuses to recognize that its increasing­ly aggressive foreign policy is the primary cause of the militariza­tion and tilt towards the U.S. in Asia which angers it.

All of this also poses a challenge for Britain and other powers, whose interests and values are aligned with, but certainly not identical to, Washington’s. The debate about how to characteri­ze China continues in the U.S. and the U.K.. But the bigger problem than the objective difference­s and substantiv­e disputes may be mutual distrust – the increasing conviction on each side (but especially Beijing’s) that the other is coming for them. China has become harder to read, and does not want to hear the U.S. But talking – and, indeed, intelligen­ce-gathering – is essential, if only so that each may better understand the other. Distrust is all the more reason to verify.


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