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Sino-US Diplomatic Engagement and Crisis Prevention

Ms Mayuri Banerjee is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 08, 2024

    Chinese Defence Minister Admiral Dong Jun met the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at the sidelines of Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, held from 30 May to 1 June. Reportedly, the meeting covered issues pertaining to Taiwan, Ukraine crisis and Gaza conflict and China’s support to Russia. Though no major announcements were made, Beijing noted that the meeting was positive, practical and constructive.1 Notably, hours before, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu held consultations with Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in the US and also met White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer.

    The simultaneous meetings between the Defence Chiefs of the two countries at Shangri La and Deputy Foreign Ministers in the US underscore the enhanced diplomatic engagement which has emerged as a trend in Sino-US relations. In 2024, the two countries have already had seven high-level exchanges on geopolitical issues, trade and security including a phone call between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in early April and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Xi in the same month. The key aspect that emerges is that continuous diplomatic exchanges have become a channel of crisis prevention amidst heightening tensions.2

    There is increasing threat perception in Washington that China could launch a pre-emptive attack on the air bases of the US or its allies in the Indo-Pacific if Beijing feels that Washington’s policies towards Taiwan are gravely undermining the cause of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.3 Historically, Taiwan has been a fundamental bone of contention between the US and China. US security assurances to Taiwan under Taiwan Relations’ Act of 1979 and arms sales to Taipei have kept China suspicious all along about US’ sincerity towards ‘One China’. At present, deteriorating relations between China and the US coupled with dominance of pro-independence DPP in Taiwan’s political scenario fuels Beijing’s distrust, despite US public support for ‘One China’.4 There is concern that China could launch an offensive against Taiwan based on an inflated assessment of its own military capabilities that it will be able to achieve its strategic objectives swiftly.5 Alternatively, within the Chinese leadership, there is mounting concern that the US and her allies are seeking to contain China’s regional and global influence, undermine China’s territorial integrity and engineer regime change through diplomatic and economic coercion.6

    Experts contend that Sino-US relations could be at the edge of chaos as increasing hostility over differences on geopolitical, trade and technological issues compounded by deepening threat perception could trigger an armed confrontation.7 It is noteworthy that besides strategic circles, such apprehensions are also being expressed occasionally at the high levels of leadership in both countries. Last year, a high-ranking US General in an official memo assessed the possibility of war with China in 2025.8 This sentiment was mirrored by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives (HoR), Michael McCaul who reiterated that odds of conflict with China over Taiwan are very high.9 Concomitantly, former State Councillor Qin Gang also warned shortly after being appointed as Foreign Minister that conflict and confrontation are inevitable unless Washington changed its course.10

    What appears worrying to observers is that increasing insecurity over strategic and economic issues and perceived need to project an assertive image to domestic audience and international allies could result in gray zone tactics being used by both sides spiralling out of control. Thereby, in this context, continuous diplomatic exchanges have emerged as an important tool for conveying critical boundaries and prevent unintended escalation to armed confrontation. As was expressed by the Defence Secretary Austin during the Shangri La Dialogue that ‘talks’ are necessary to identify the issues that are troublesome and place guardrails to ensure there are no misperceptions and miscalculations that can spiral out of control.11

    One of the prominent examples of this endeavour was observed during the balloon crisis in 2023 which triggered considerable public acrimony between the two countries. Media reports about the sighting of the balloon in American airspace on 1 February 2023 caused massive public outrage in the US. Washington terming the incident as ‘unacceptable violation’, cancelled Blinken’s visit to China that was scheduled on 3 February and shot down the balloon on 4 February.12 Further, Wendy Sherman, the Deputy Secretary of State declared that the Biden administration was reviewing its strategy towards China and would invest diplomatically in the Pacific to counter China.13

    Beijing initially expressed regret, noting that the breach was unintended but condemned US action as ‘over abuse of force’ and violation of international practice, and warned of necessary response.14 The incident was viewed by observers to have derailed efforts to mend ties and resume regular high-level talks, inducing further strain to bilateral relations. However, on the contrary, within two weeks of the balloon incident, President Biden in an interview to NBC News stated that Xi did not intend to damage relations with the US.15

    Thereafter, Secretary Blinken and then Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Wang Yi met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany on 18 February to chalk out an exit strategy from the diplomatic deadlock. The two sides did exchange sharp words, with Blinken warning that the act must never again occur and Wang Yi warning that the US would bear the consequences of escalating the balloon incident.16

    Notably, no major crisis erupted in Sino-US relations following the meeting and interestingly, the tone shifted in the following months.17 Departing from the diplomatic acrimony, the US Secretary of Treasury in April noted that the US did not seek a winner take all competition with China. There were meetings between then Foreign Minister Qin Gang and the US Ambassador to China R. Nicholas Burns and later Wang Yi and Jake Sullivan in May discussing ways to stabilise bilateral competition.18 Furthermore, in June, Biden acknowledged China’s previous claim and noted that the Chinese leadership was unaware that the balloon had blown off course.19

    More recently, diplomatic engagement to avoid unforeseen escalation was evident as the US–PRC Defence Policy Coordination talks focusing on Taiwan (along with other issues) was the first dialogue to be held between the two sides in 2024 on the eve of Taiwan Presidential elections conducted on 13 January. Further, a day before the elections, Secretary Blinken met top Chinese diplomat Liu Jianchao to discuss ways to manage rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits.20  Interestingly, China’s reaction to Taiwan election and Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory this time was muted than usual.21 Further, the Taiwan elections, which has been one of the major irritants for Beijing in the past, received minimal coverage and criticism in Xinhua, the official press agency of China. More importantly, Secretary Blinken while congratulating President Lai Ching-te reiterated that the US did not support Taiwan independence.22

    A meeting between Wang Yi and Antony Blinken discussing the US sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies was held on the sidelines of the Munich Conference in February 2024 weeks before the issue of ban on Tik Tok surfaced. Also, President Xi and Biden spoke on phone over areas of cooperation and differences, shortly after US HOR passed the bill to ban Tik Tok over allegations of Byte Dance handing over US users’ data to the Chinese government.23

    Incidentally, a day after President Biden’s signing of the disinvestment bill to ban Tik Tok on 24 April, Secretary Blinken landed in Beijing on 25 April for talks with Chinese officials. Thereafter, following Biden’s signing of the Tik Tok ban bill into law, Chinese diplomats asked repeatedly about US decision remained muted in their defence of the app. Beijing in the past had termed US actions against Tik Tok as instance of US suppression and bullying.24 In the US on the other hand, despite signing of the bill and the public rhetoric of security concerns, Joe Biden’s re-election campaign embraced the platform, indicating possibility of a lenient approach in the future.25 Further, as the Congress will not be able to outright ban the social media platform unless the allegations of serious security and privacy concerns are proven, room for negotiations remain. Notably, the US Department of Justice has already dropped one of the most serious allegations against Tik Tok regarding user data security breach. 26 Preceding Blinken’s visit on 25 April, a Chinese official acknowledged that bilateral ties were stabilising and are likely to advance on a sustainable path.27

    While the Sino-US diplomatic engagement has been successful in limiting emergence of unforeseen tensions and fostering a modicum of stability between the two countries, contentions on Taiwan, South China Sea, advanced technology, trade and supply chains remain. Despite continuous engagement, given that the leadership in both countries continue to publicly securitise the economic and geostrategic issues, the danger of miscalculations persists.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.