Global politics

Rocky re-start for US-China relations as superpowers swap punches

FIEL - In this March 18, 2021, file photo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, joined by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, right, speaks while facing Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi, second from left, and China's State Councilor Wang Yi, left, at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. China said Friday, March 19, 2021, a “strong smell of gunpowder and drama” resulted from talks with top American diplomats in Alaska, continuing the contentious tone of the first face-to-face meetings under the Biden administration. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool Photo via AP, File)
FIEL - In this March 18, 2021, file photo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, joined by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, right, speaks while facing Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi, second from left, and China's State Councilor Wang Yi, left, at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. China said Friday, March 19, 2021, a “strong smell of gunpowder and drama” resulted from talks with top American diplomats in Alaska, continuing the contentious tone of the first face-to-face meetings under the Biden administration. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool Photo via AP, File) AP - Frederic J. Brown

Top US and Chinese officials have been meeting again, following an un-diplomatic clash in the first high-level contact between Washington and Beijing since Joe Biden took over the US Presidency.  

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After the opening on Thursday, the two sides traded blows, with the US accusing the Chinese delegation of “grandstanding” for their domestic audience, and Beijing saying there was a “strong smell of gunpowder and drama” in the room, entirely the fault of the Americans.

In unusually pointed remarks for a diplomatic meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi took aim at each other’s country's policies. The contentious tone of their public comments suggested the private discussions would be even more aggressive. 

The visit to Anchorage follows touch-downs with Washinton's staunchest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, who are both in favour of a stronger strategy against Beijing. 

But Washington's approach may backfire, says Biden-critic James Bradley, author of the bestselling book Flags of our Fathers, and publications about China and the Sino-US relationship in the Pacific. 

Breathtaking changes

"There has been a change in the relationship," he says. "Commentators keep saying that China has to change its behavior. That was fine in 1955, or 1965. But the West is slow to realize the breathtaking changes taking place."

Bradley points  out that in just a few decades, the economic and military power balance between China and the US has been shifting to the advantage of Beijing. 

"In 1995, (then US President) Bill Clinton was involved in political fights and Monica Lewinsky was dominating the headlines . . . the founders of Huawei were sleeping on cement floors in China." In less than two decades, they went on to establish a telecoms company that supplied major western countries with electronic equipment.

A smartphone with the Huawei and 5G network logo is seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2020.
A smartphone with the Huawei and 5G network logo is seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2020. © REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

Google co-founder Eric Schmidt recently worried, while testifying before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, that China "could surpass the United States as the world’s Artificial Intelligence superpower" within the next decade, pointing out that the Chinese were already "more technically advanced in certain applications."

Rock in the soup

While Chinese officials have rejected any US criticism regarding China's dealings with Hong Kong and Xinjiang, to say nothing of the human rights situation in general, Bradley thinks that "the biggest rock in the soup" is Taiwan, which is informally protected by Washington through the Taiwan Relations Act, which promises US assistance in case of an invasion by Beijing. 

"Emperor Mao (Zedong) made China one," says Bradley. Emperor Deng (Xiaoping) made China rich; and Emperor Xi (Jinping) wants to make China whole.

"And the whole includes Taiwan. Once that's done, that's China. China's looking to enrich itself and continue its success," he says.

This handout photograph taken and released on May 11, 2018 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows a Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-CK-1 Indigenous Defence Fighter (R) flying alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Tu-154M aircraft that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, and over the Miyako Strait, near Japan's Okinawa Island, in a drill. - China sent fighter jets and other military aircraft near Taiwan on May 11 in the latest of a series of drills which Beijing has said are aimed at the island's "independence forces".
This handout photograph taken and released on May 11, 2018 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows a Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-CK-1 Indigenous Defence Fighter (R) flying alongside a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Tu-154M aircraft that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, and over the Miyako Strait, near Japan's Okinawa Island, in a drill. - China sent fighter jets and other military aircraft near Taiwan on May 11 in the latest of a series of drills which Beijing has said are aimed at the island's "independence forces". AFP - HANDOUT

But will that lead to war between China and the US?

"It takes two to tango," says Bradley. "The United States pushed out into the Pacific. But China is not into expansion. China doesn't want to take California. China doesn't want to rule the world. They see America failing and going broke. 

"Beijing is not looking for war, the business of China is business, the business of America is war." 

Echoing Beijing, Bradley says that it "is time to go back a little further in history, and see that Taiwan is part of China, and China can take care of it as an internal matter, or America can force war into the equation."

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