September 13, 2021 by archyde
After 7 months of radio silence, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping spoke on the phone Thursday evening. The objective of this contact according to the White House: to ensure that the “competition” between the United States and China does not turn into “conflict” in the years to come. Taiwan, South China Sea … There is no shortage of sources of tension between the two countries. And fuel, despite the conciliatory tone displayed Thursday, the fear of a possible clash. Interview with Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia program at Institut Montaigne.
L’Express: Beyond their declaration of intent, what can Joe Biden and Xi Jinping do to avoid a confrontation between their two countries?
Mathieu Duchatel : There are a number of procedures to limit the risk of an incident, which can be grouped together under the term “confidence building measures”. Overall, their goal is to have open communication channels in order to avoid unpredictable behavior during potential incidents. Concretely, if we take a maritime example, this allows us to know how to react in the event of an unexpected encounter in the South China Sea between a Chinese ship and an American ship. This limits the risk of misunderstanding and potential snagging. However, it should be noted that China has always had a fairly cautious approach to these confidence-building measures. There is indeed a tradition in the country which tends to see predictability as a sign of weakness. Beijing has always preferred to leave the other parties in suspicion of what its reaction might be. This is supposed to give it some extra leeway.
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In this regard, a point struck me a lot in the justification that the Americans gave Thursday to this phone call between the two leaders. They expressed Joe Biden’s “exasperation” at the fact that there was almost no substantial exchange with the Chinese side at the level of diplomats from each country, and therefore it was necessary to move up to the next level. through a dialogue between the two leaders. The Democratic administration came to power with the idea that channels of communication had to be reestablished with Beijing, after the significant turmoil of the Trump years. But China considers that there is ultimately a great continuity between Joe Biden and his predecessor in their hostile policy towards him, and it therefore does not really have the will to restore the ties that have been loosened.
You seem skeptical about the possibility of a real strengthening of confidence-building measures between the two countries …
Mechanisms exist at the level of the American and Chinese navies, but it is clear that military diplomacy between the two countries is now reduced to the strict minimum. And I am indeed quite pessimistic about the ability of the two countries to strengthen their mutual confidence in certain issues, given their profound differences on the substance. This is the case with Taiwan, which China considers one of its provinces, and which today constitutes one of its top priorities. China tends to perceive the defensive measures taken by Taiwan to maintain the status quo, including by deepening its ties with the United States, as an independence strategy.
It is extremely difficult to find a common Sino-American interest in this file, so a very important mistrust has settled between Beijing and Washington. On the American side, we fear a will of China to annex the island by force. On the Chinese side, there is the temptation to test the will of the United States to defend Taiwan to the end in the event of military action by Beijing. In addition, tensions also exist in other cases. The risk of an incident is high in the South China Sea, where the US Navy defends freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, while Beijing is trying to assert its sovereignty there. Confidence-building measures exist precisely so that such divergences do not lead to incidents, but the level of mistrust is such today that China is highly unlikely to agree to harm reduction mechanisms.
Concretely, what could be the starting point of a military escalation between Beijing and Washington?
Everything could start from a collision between two ships or two planes, this has happened in the past. But when the tensions are high, and the communication channels are difficult to use, it increases the risk that the crisis will be mismanaged, because the intentions of the opposing party can be misunderstood. From there, several scenarios are possible, with a gradation in the risk of escalation. Moreover, even if one can think that the two countries would seek a rapid freeze of the crisis, the stakes of internal policy can limit their room for maneuver in this direction.
Is a conflict inevitable in the medium or long term between the two powers?
It’s a risk. In the absence of confidence-building measures, deterrence has a major role to play. The costs of a Sino-US confrontation that could lead to a terrible escalation would be so great that it is a factor that can limit the possibility of conflict. Despite everything, I think we are entering a truly risky period. Because Beijing’s goals in East Asia are a complete transformation of the status quo: that is, complete domination of the South China Sea and annexation of Taiwan.
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And China is making its willingness to go to conflict to achieve its goals more and more clearly, even though before it gets there, it will assess the situation as rationally as possible. The Chinese decision to initiate a conflict or not will have to take into account several key factors, such as the American deterrence posture, reinforced by that of its allies in the region such as Japan, Taiwan’s determination to resist … the posture of deterrence remains the best antidote against the risk of war.
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