THEO VAN GOGH WATCH: Building a floor under the US-China relationship Meia Nouwens Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The coordinated activity between liberal democracies that Beijing long suspected would inevitably fail, is seemingly more successful than it would previously have anticipated were possible,” writes Meia Nouwens of IISS MEIA NOUWENSon June 10, 2022 at 2:22 PM BREAKING DEFENSE US

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue brings defense leaders from across the Pacific into the heart of Singapore, providing a rare opportunity for Chinese military officials to intermingle with their counterparts from rival nations. Friday’s surprise meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese equivalent was the highest in-person interaction Austin has had since he took office, but, writes Meia Nouwens of IISS, it needs to be a starting point, not a conclusion. 

As leaders from across the Indo-Pacific gather here in Singapore for the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue, they should focus on the deteriorating US-China relationship and how to create confidence building measures, placing a floor under the relationship, and implementing practical channels of crisis communication and de-escalation.

Since 2019, the US-China relationship has progressively deteriorated. Under the Trump Administration, the relationship was characterized by competition of governance systems, values, trade and technological leadership. The era in which the US-China policy was characterized by engagement strategy ended, as China had exploited the rules based international system to its benefit and sought to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

The global COVID-19 pandemic had a further negative impact on US perceptions of China. In the US, 73 percent of participants polled in a 2020 PEW survey viewed China negatively — a 15 percent increase from the year before. Chinese views of the US during the Trump Administration similarly declined. In an August 2020 poll, 63 percent of Chinese surveyed had a negative view of the US, while 78 percent of respondents viewed China’s own international image as good or very good. Chinese and American view of each other’s and their own positions in the world were diverging.

US-China relations have not improved despite the change in administration in the US. Under Biden, the relationship remains confrontational with little view of ameliorating. Biden’s approach, however, is one centered on mending the US’ relationship with its allies and partners and garnering support for coordination and collaboration in policies that seek to uphold the rules based international order, and also serve as pushback to China.

Despite publishing its Indo-Pacific policy, the Biden Administration has not yet published its China strategy, and it is unclear exactly what this entails. Rather than focusing directly on confronting China, the Biden Administration views its greatest chance of success in shaping the strategic environment in which China operates. China, in turn, continues to view US policy towards itself, as well as the Indo-Pacific region as a whole, through a Cold War lens, accusing the US of containment policy and a zero-sum mentality.

In 2021, China continued on its trajectory of building a modern and top-tier military, as well as driving forward its ambitions for technological leadership in areas of emerging and disruptive technologies. In the Indo-Pacific region, the PLA has remained active throughout 2021 and into 2022, in the South and East China seas and around Taiwan. And Beijing has sought to bolster its external relations in the region, as seen in the statement published with Russia in February 2022 and the bilateral agreement it signed with the Solomon Islands.

China’s increasingly assertive behavior, particularly throughout the global COVID pandemic, has been detrimental to Beijing’s wider reputation. In Europe, for example, views on China have become unprecedently critical of Beijing. China’s wolf warrior-styled diplomacy campaigns during the COVID pandemic, detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the crackdown on protests in Hong Kong and subsequent imposition of the National Security Law solidified in most European capitals’ minds that China has moved towards greater authoritarianism under Xi’s rule. While most European capitals dragged their feet on taking decisions on whether or not to restrict Chinese technology from their national critical infrastructures, today the European Union has halted its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China and instead has recently taken a step towards a Bilateral Investment Treaty with Taiwan that had stalled for over half a decade. Beijing, meanwhile, has been slow to recognize that this change in European perceptions of China are not transitory, but reflect a fundamental change in European Chinese relations. At the  23rd EU-China Summit in April 2022 China accused the EU of basing its China policy on that of the United States and has called for Europe to exercise its “strategic autonomy” in its relationship with China. EU HRVP Josep Borrell described the proceedings as a “dialogue of the deaf.”


Back in the Indo-Pacific, China’s increasing assertiveness in the region and the Euro-Atlantic has spurred minilateral initiatives between like-minded partners and allies with a view to combine resources, leverage complementary strengths, and ultimately bolster the existing rules-based order in the region. In the past two years alone, the US, Australia and the UK signed the AUKUS agreement; Australia, the US, India and Japan deepened their engagement in the Quad and held the first in person leaders’ summit; Australia and Japan signed a reciprocal access agreement; and a UK-led carrier strike group sailed to the Indo-Pacific on its maiden voyage together with the Netherlands and the US navies; and leaders in Japan, including former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, have become increasingly vocal about the importance of Taiwan’s security for Japan’s security. In addition, the coordinated response by liberal democracies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also been noted by Beijing, where it has drawn comparisons in the minds of Chinese leadership to a possible parallel with a Taiwan contingency — though the two are not entirely comparable

In other words, the coordinated activity between liberal democracies that Beijing long suspected would inevitably fail is seemingly more successful than it would previously have anticipated were possible. More countries, it would seem, are willing to coordinate their policies to push back against China, while Beijing’s own position has become potentially more isolated. While the Sino-Russian statement published on Feb. 4 was meant to portray China and Russia as a strong counter-bloc to Western hegemony in the international system, a (currently) isolated Russia post-Ukraine may be of greater risk than reward to Beijing today.

As a result, Beijing’s threat perceptions are heightening — a dynamic that requires careful consideration.

The future trajectory of an isolated China with a heightened threat perception does not bode well for regional stability. It might give advocates in China for greater military assertiveness a stronger voice in decision-making. And Beijing’s perception that the ultimate goal of liberal democracies is not to uphold the international order but to contain China altogether may garner further credibility. Regional countries in the Indo-Pacific who to date have carefully hedged their bilateral relations with the US and with China may come under greater pressure to choose one side over another.

The need for confidence building measures, channels for crisis communications, discussions about de-escalation and offramps has never been greater. Since the start of the Biden administration, US-Chinese high-level military dialogues have been limited. Having consistent communication between the two militaries is an important foundation of the bilateral relationship in order to avoid unintended conflict or miscalculation. In 2021, the two sides held three talks at deputy assistant secretary of defense level, as well as between the two countries’ navies and air forces, but more can be done.

Bilateral talks such as those held in 2021 focus on regular and pre-planned opportunities to communicate. They do not, however, impact the political decision-making in two governments during a crisis situation when this has erupted. Former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Adm. (retd) Scott Swift has stated that current bilateral crisis communications systems could be overwhelmed in a crisis scenario. Of course, a direct hotline between the two capitals would only be useful if both sides agreed to actually using it — and Beijing’s track record to date suggests its actions have not lived up to its rhetoric.

Hence, the Friday meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe is a good sign. According to reporters travelling with Austin, the nearly hour-long meeting went longer than expected and Wei was described as “responsive” to the idea of better crisis communication mechanisms.

That cannot be the end of it, however. Such discussions increasingly should be held between commanders of services who command forces that are likely to come into contact with each other. This, however, would require the Chinese military to significantly relax their protocols on communication. These suggestions also go beyond just US-China military communication. Indeed, as European powers seek to become increasingly engaged in the Indo-Pacific, including in areas of traditional and non-traditional security, communication between national militaries and the PLA should also be developed. While there are opportunities for progress to be made in these two areas of communication, expectations will need to be limited.

Under the highly politicized current climate of CCP control over the PLA, the decentralization of communication channels beyond top-level officials and across the military will be difficult for Beijing to implement. Nevertheless, the alternative — risking miscalculation — would be far worse.

Meia Nouwens is the Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.