U.S.-China Rivalry: A Cold War Reboot or a Dance of Diplomacy?

A tense encounter in the South China Sea between a Chinese warship and a U.S. destroyer on June 3, 2023, adds a new layer of complexity to an already volatile U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command labeled the Chinese maneuvers as “unsafe,” while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified them as a response to U.S. provocations. This episode brings us back to the contentious question: Can the U.S. and China strike a balance of mutual respect to mitigating mounting tensions?

This incident unfolded in the backdrop of the U.S. and Canada conducting joint military exercises in the South China Sea, under the banner of what the U.S. calls Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations. Justifying these exercises is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although interestingly, the U.S. while embracing the FON principle, has yet to ratify this Convention. This FON argument thus seems more like a unilateral act of defiance than a legally backed maneuver, a fact that doesn’t sit well with many.

On the same day, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took the stage at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual meeting of military chiefs from around Asia. Asked about the maritime encounter, he urged China to control such actions to prevent any inadvertent escalation. He was, however, silent on the fact that the U.S.-Canadian military exercise was conducted near Chinese territorial waters. The subtle nuances in these narratives paint a fascinating picture of the complex dynamics of play.

China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu, on the other hand, had a more direct question: “Why did all these incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?” Li emphasized that the United States and other nations should respect China’s territorial waters and airspace to prevent such incidents. He also argued that these FON exercises are not innocent in nature but provocative.

Meanwhile, Austin, away from the press, was busy bolstering U.S. military alliances aimed at tightening the net around China. Significant meetings were held with Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, with heated words against China flying around in official statements. The U.S. is nurturing military cooperation among these nations, building on existing agreements and promoting the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The U.S. continues to navigate the waters of international relations, strengthening alliances and flexing military muscle in its strategic maneuvers against China.

Over the past two decades, the United States has invested heavily in forming military alliances aimed squarely at China. From the Quad alliance to the renaming of the Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. has been stoking regional conflicts while positioning itself as the defender against a purportedly bullying China. The approach seems less focused on resolving disputes and more on establishing a global alliance with China.

Amid this tense geopolitical dance, Austin pointed out that China, as a significant commercial power, should also be interested in freedom of navigation. Yet, while acknowledging the need for dialogue with the United States, China’s Defense Minister Li stressed that “mutual respect” should form the bedrock of any communication between the two powers. The question remains: Can this mutual respect be achieved amid escalating tensions and pointed rhetoric? The U.S. may need to tune down its sweet-sounding yet often sour-toned language and truly embrace the notion of respect for China’s sovereignty if real progress is to be made.