To say that relations between the U.S. and China are tense would be an understatement. Veiled threats, economic decoupling and geopolitical standoffs have in recent months become the norm between the world's traditional superpower and its emerging challenger. These heated exchanges are fertile grounds for an emerging Cold War and, arguably, armed conflict.
The restructuring of the status quo versus its preservation is the crux of the U.S.-Sino struggle, with an increasingly assertive China bent on imposing its will throughout East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has rallied Chinese nationalism to neutralize the autonomous aspirations of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the de facto independent state of Taiwan, where the CCP maintains sovereignty. On its western flank, Beijing lays claim to contested Himalayan regions which border India. Armed clashes with India over the Ladakh and Doklam regions have shown China is adopting a more belligerent approach to solving border disputes.
Another flashpoint of Chinese bellicosity is the South China Sea. To the chagrin of neighboring states, Beijing has made sweeping historical claims to much of this maritime region, which have been backed by construction of man-made islands, installation of military and surveillance outposts, and the fielding of a large fishing militia tasked with fending off foreign fishing and naval craft. Beijing has also flown military aircraft near Taiwan and the Diaoyu (Senkaku, in Japanese) Islands, which are hotly contested by the Republic of China (the Taiwanese government) and Japan.
These increasingly aggressive maneuvers have signaled China's growing impatience over territorial disputes and have drawn its regional neighbors and the U.S. into partnerships to contain Chinese expansion. One example is the Quadrilateral Alliance, an informal defensive alliance between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan which has in the last year conducted military drills in the Pacific and Indian oceans in a show of force against Beijing. The urgency of these regional disputes was amplified Aug. 6, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison, of Quad member Australia, declared that war with China is possible.
The U.S.'s aggressive preservation of its traditional power grip on the region can be attributed in part to President Trump's unconventional leadership and his commitment to a hyper-loyal constituent base. Trump understands that maintaining the allegiance of his supporters is essential to bolstering his reelection chances, yet his ineffective response to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with perceptions of his indifference to racial inequities has prompted "wag-the-dog" responses. Hence the Trump regime's antagonistic pursuit of Chinese containment, geopolitically, diplomatically and technologically. To this end, U.S. naval Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea have increased markedly in the past year, as have increased diplomatic and military overtures with Taiwan. Beijing voiced its displeasure after U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar paid a visit to Taiwan Aug. 9, stating that, "Those who play with fire get burnt." In response to U.S. operations in the South China Sea in July, China threatened that "any U.S. aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA [People's Liberation Army]." The PLA has a wide selection of anti-aircraft-carrier weapons.
The U.S. has sanctioned Chinese tech giants Huawei, TikTok and WeChat in the last year, contending the entities pose a threat to national security. On the diplomatic front, Washington shuttered a Houston-based Chinese consulate in July, prompting Beijing to close a Chengdu-based U.S. consulate days later. In another tit-for-tat move, on Aug. 10 China sanctioned 11 American politicians and heads of organizations, days after the U.S. sanctioned the same number of Chinese officials for human rights violations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the moves, contending that "if the free world doesn't change Communist China, Communist China will change us." The most worrying development to date was an Aug. 15 Pentagon announcement that the U.S. is considering providing Asian allies with mid-range missiles to counter China.
At its current rate, tension between the U.S. and China is unsustainable. As U.S.-Sino interests and ideals collide, the proximity of their armed forces narrows. Consequently, the potential for military miscalculation increases between the two nuclear powers. Ultimately, the CCP will have to accept that the U.S. will only tolerate so much disruption to the regional status quo. Conversely, the U.S. must acknowledge the inevitability of Chinese cultural, technological and geopolitical influence driven by its meteoric economic growth in the past 25 years. In a scenario where neither state has shown sincere willingness to cede ground, mutual concessions must be enacted to defuse a geopolitical powder keg that threatens not only armed conflict, but all-out war.
A lifelong Springfield-area resident, Andrew Leonard is a freelance writer with a passion for global geopolitical and security issues. He previously served as a part-time sportswriter for the State Journal-Register and a columnist for The Daily Egyptian while attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.