While the world’s attention has been fixated on the current Israel-Hamas crisis in the Middle East, the ingrained US-Sino rivalry and the tensions in the Indo Pacific, Taiwan and the South China Sea have been engulfed by the bulk of the global attention.
Upcoming Taiwan presidential election with the increasing odds of DPP candidate William Lai winning the election have further cornered Beijing’s options, worsened by the growing internal turmoil with the dismissal of top officials in the past few months, and with the new scramble to control the impact of the sudden passing away of former Premier Li Keqiang.
Beijing also intends to maintain its dominance in key flashpoints including South China Sea, as evidenced by the recent hard power intimidation on Philippines’ vessels and the dangerous manouvres by its fighter jet that nearly collided with Washington’s B-52 bomber plane.
The Pentagon’s top Indo Pacific official Ely Ratner, stated that coercive and risky behaviours from Chinese pilots against US jets and assets over the South China and East seas are substantially more in volume in the past two years as compared to the entire decade before that.
Military to military communications that have been cut off by Beijing remain an area of urgency for both sides, but Washington has the moral upper hand as it has the record of pushing Beijing to resume normal and responsible military engagement and responsibilities where Beijing is now forced to bear the blame should any miscalculations occur.
Overtures have been intensive from the US in the most recent months with subsequent visits by different high ranking officials, from Blinken to Raimondo and Yellen and other non official individuals including Gates and most recently California Governor Gavin Newsom.
All these will not change the eventual power equation, however. As part of the latest National Defense Strategy, The US has a laser focus on China as the “pacing challenge,” as part of the latest National Defense Strategy that is capable of competing with America in terms of military might, economic power and international influence.
Continuation of Deeper Power Rivalry
Beijing already enjoys numerical advantage in certain segments of hard power, including a large standing army of more than one million soldiers and having the largest navy in the world in terms of ship volume. The US remains supreme in proven hard power capacity and lethality, with far superior technology and capabilities in integrated second and third strike capacities, with ability to project and enforce power dominance in all corners of the world and especially the ability to summon capable and integrated joint capacities of numerous allies from across the world. All these remain decades, if not centuries ahead for Beijing to fully match and possess similar capabilities.
Biden has reiterated his ironclad defence commitment to Manila, which has faced intimidating behaviours from Beijing in cutting floating barriers and the collision incident.
The defence treaty with Manila comes close to being triggered, and Beijing is testing the limits and responses by Washington in anticipating a larger security policy response in a future Taiwan conflict.
Further provocations such as these will only increase risks of miscalculations in responses, or an outright accidental collision with US military assets which will create a new front of containment measures and further economic and technological retaliations, both of which will be at Beijing’s loss.
Beijing is cognisant that while it hopes for the new distraction for Washington in the Middle East, Beijing’s current economic and internal turmoil will require the best of goodwill and restraint in Washington’s part in its trade, technology and economic structures and policy responses.
Washington will further pile pressure on Beijing in doing more to push current allies in the Middle East, especially Iran to refrain from escalatory pushback that will trigger a full blown and widened conflict. Beijing is also caught in the nexus of the best returns from further capitalising on this new conflict opening to elevate its narrative on the West being the source of the ingrained injustice and the hypocrisy in responses in defending the rules based order as compared to the crisis in Ukraine, and in taking this from a positive perspective in creating new junctures of repairing ties and further receiving trust and goodwill from both sides.
Salvaging Dwindling Leverage of China’s Card
Wang Yi’s trip to the US is meant to balance these two, while paving the way for a deeper conciliation in the upcoming APEC Summit in San Francisco in which Xi and Biden are projected to meet.
Biden will most likely confront Xi on the fentanyl epidemic that is raging across the country, in which Xi will most likely deny responsibility again for the more than 70,000 Americans killed by the opioid crisis last year. For anybody to know that narcotics can be a huge factor in geopolitics and eventual security considerations, it is the Chinese.
The visit is overshadowed by the looming dilemma in the Middle East crisis, and the growing uncertainties in cost benefit calculations of choosing a clearer side with the Global South, regional Middle East allies, Moscow and in building on the long efforts in being seen as the viable and respected alternative solution to the Middle East in replacing the Western dominated sphere, or in breaking away from the growing pro Palestinian movements throughout the world. By choosing the latter, Beijing risks its position and influence in the Global South and the Muslim that it has so painstakingly built over the years.
The preceding visit by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese further creates a consolidation of joint common efforts to strengthen the bulwark of democracy and freedom and the system of joint and interoperable security with Aukus at the epicentre of Washington-Canberra security assurance.
Biden has warned Albanese on the risks of dealing with China in his next visit to China, and further reassured the sanctity of American strength and commitment to peace, stability and the defence of democracy and freedom and the rules based order in all parts of the world, in which crises in Europe and the Middle East will not dent Washington’s resolve.
While Beijing will hope to have leverage on its ties with Tehran to build greater credence on its cards with Washington and in playing a role in reining in the current Israel-Hamas conflict from veering into a proxy war and the potentiality of WWIII, Beijing is also cognisant that it will be on its gains if it can play its role and prevent a direct US-Iran open conflict and confrontation, as this will impact on the price and supply of oil that Beijing is in desperate need of.
Still, opposing stances and views on Tehran by both sides remain the biggest stumbling block, and economic and supply chain security is not the only parameter at play.
While both Beijing and Washington go into next month’s APEC with a still stark difference in military and economic perspectives and understanding, Washington now can boast of handling the post pandemic recovery and weathering the global economic conditions after Covid in a much better fashion than Beijing.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.