WASHINGTON — The gap separating war and peace between China and the United States is getting closer, both symbolically and in reality.
As the two nations poke and prod each other in the skies, on the sea and economically, the distance needed for calm deliberation seems to be disappearing. And while no one believes either Washington or Beijing wants war, sometimes war sprouts like an unexpected weed when the ground is fertilized.
“It does seem all too clear that both the United States and China need to do more in analyzing the risks in choosing conflict and containment over competition and cooperation,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., wrote this week on the think tank’s website.
Adds Bill Bishop, who writes on China for the newsletter Sinocism, “I wish I could live on the sunny side of the mountain, but when it comes to the U.S.-China relationship right now all I am seeing are storm clouds.”
Tensions and confrontations between China and United States have soared over the past month, most recently with a Chinese destroyer confronting USS Decatur near the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese vessel came close to ramming the U.S. destroyer.
That was the most visible closing of the war/peace divide. Other incidents and reports furthered the fraying.
On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army had added tiny chips the size of a grain of rice to server motherboards supplied by Supermicro that would allow backdoor access.
Such national security risks were a concern by some in Congress earlier this year that prompted the unsuccessful attempt to ban products from Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE.
Last week the Chinese told Defense Secretary James Mattis that a visit he planned in two weeks was cancelled. Beijing also refused a Pentagon request to permit the USS Wasp to make a port visit in at Hong Kong.
Those actions were Beijing’s retaliation for the U.S. imposing sanctions on China for its purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment this year.
In September, China ordered home Chinese navy commander Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, China’s naval chief, who was attending the 23rd International Seapower Symposium taking place in Rhode Island. Shen was to have a private meeting with Admiral John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations.
China was further infuriated with the State Department’s approval to sell Taiwan $330 million in arms and parts. China considers Taiwan a rebel province that is part of Beijing’s sovereign territory.
The U.S. and some allies have increased sailings through the South China Sea and the East China Sea to assert freedom of navigation rights. The U.S. also has flown B-52 bombers through the territory, to the ire of China.
Washington and others protest China’s militarization of islands in those two bodies of water, many of which are claimed by multiple nations.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said he will “not be intimidated” by China’s attempts at asserting authority.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated. We will not stand down,” Pence said in remarks to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Cordesman noted that efforts by China and the U.S. to deter and contain each other and establish zones of strategic influence become “steadily more directly competitive and time sensitive.” He likened it to similar mistakes throughout history.
“Like the Anglo-German naval arms race that took place between the late 1880s and 1914, the U.S. and China are seeking to preserve or achieve power and ‘containment’ rather than take steps that lead to war or conflict,” Cordesman wrote. “They are, however, embarking on a de facto arms race and competition for influence that can all too easily create the conditions where war becomes steadily more likely.”