Relations between the United States and China are showing increasing signs of strain and deterioration. The Munich Security Conference revealed a strategic competition fraught with geopolitical risks. During the forum sessions, heated arguments erupted between representatives of the two powers, which highlighted the seriousness of the tensions between the two powers. Late Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, held a meeting to address these issues. The meeting has value in keeping the dialogue flowing, but early indications from the US side have not reversed the worrying path.
Beijing’s top diplomat used his speech at the conference this Saturday to lay out a long list of allegations against Washington, including responding in “hysterical and absurd” ways to the crisis surrounding the Chinese balloon that entered its airspace and it was subsequently shot down by the Pentagon. “He didn’t show strength, he showed weakness. It was 100% abuse of the use of force. We don’t accept that,” said Wang, who also openly accused the US of “containing China, harming it with false accusations and co-opting other countries to do the same.”
Shortly thereafter, US Vice President Kamala Harris voiced her “concerns about the deepening of China-Russia ties following the invasion of Ukraine” while accusing Moscow of committing crimes against humanity in its war offensive.
Harris urged allies in the Ukraine-backed coalition to stay “strong” as the outcome of the conflict will send a critical message to “other authoritarian powers who may seek to reshape the world through coercion or even brute force.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it more clearly: “We know that Beijing is closely monitoring the price it is paying or how Russia is benefiting from its aggression. What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow.”
tension around Taiwan
Taiwan is the area where risks are concentrated that fierce competition between the two powers will turn confrontational. Tensions run high, with growing Washington military aid to the island and the prospect of a visit to the territory by new House Speaker Republican Kevin McCarthy, following his predecessor Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the past legislature. This gesture was perceived by Beijing as a serious provocation.
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When asked if he could assure that there would be no imminent military escalation in Taiwan, Wang replied: “I assure the audience that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory; that it never was and never will be a country. This is the status quo, and it is not China that wants to change it.” He previously warned that “China will resolutely curb acts of separatism and interference to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Wang outlined a scenario in which “the Cold War mentality returns, where geopolitical risks are magnified and unilateralism is rampant,” he said, blaming attempts to “encourage ideological confrontation and the formation of exclusionary blocs.”
He has not indicated who he believes would be the promoter of these scourges, nor has he done so when he warned that “exaggerated security threats or stoking tensions undermine mutual strategic trust and increase the risk of miscalculations”; or when he declared that “the principle of sovereignty is the cornerstone of the international order and should not be subject to double standards”. Probably no one in the room doubted that he was referring to the United States, and many would certainly have been happy to answer: Why, if the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are so important, as the Chinese representative emphasized, did Beijing condemn the Russian invasion in Ukraine not at the United Nations?
The Chinese head of state announced that Beijing is preparing to present a peace plan for the crisis in Ukraine, based on various elements such as “respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity”. “Nuclear wars should not be waged,” said Wang, who is scheduled to travel to Moscow in the coming days.
Wang’s speech emphasized China’s strategy to get the EU not to follow the US in its policy towards Beijing. “The world should not go down the wrong path of protectionism, decoupling, breaking chains,” he said. “China and Europe are two great forces, markets, civilizations in an increasingly multipolar world. The choices we make have a huge impact on the future of the world. If we choose dialogue and cooperation, there will be no bloc confrontation; If we choose peace and stability, no new Cold War will break out.”
The economic, commercial and technological dimension is a key aspect of the struggle between the two powers and Washington is looking for its allies to accompany the strategy. Japan and the Netherlands, for example, have shown willingness to acquiesce in restrictions on the export of microchips to Beijing, a key element in the future technology race.
In Munich, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai underscored her belief in the importance of ongoing globalization, emphasizing resilience over efficiency. Tai also said that the Joe Biden administration believes in free trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO) but will not hesitate to take any necessary steps for trade security.
“Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has made us vulnerable. We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake with China and other authoritarian regimes,” said Stoltenberg, who believed that “economic interest cannot outweigh security.”
Beware of abrupt distancing
Under these circumstances, the EU is trying to find a common position, with some difficulties. Eastern European countries that see full US support as vital are more willing to continue on the path of fierce competition embarked on by Washington. But others, including major economies with strong ties to China, are worried about an abrupt pullback. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is committed to reducing the risks of over-dependency rather than disengagement, with a political stance that appears less intense than that of the US.
BMW President Oliver Zipse, who attended a panel in Munich with Tai and EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, warned of the multitude of countries around the world that did not want to be forced to take sides and the complexity such deep decoupling and the damage it can do to innovation. He mentioned that his company has 12,000 suppliers in a variety of countries, for example.
In fact, the conference provided the stage for several leaders of the Global South, a concept that unites a heterogeneous group of countries, but in which there is a clear sense of nonalignment in the conflicts on the West and East Axis and a frustration at the consequences of action of the north in the south.
China is strenuously trying to avoid forming a bloc that will noticeably disrupt trade ties. In Munich, Wang assured that Beijing would stay on the path of “peaceful development”. “There are those who think it is inevitable that at some point a growing power will attempt to be hegemonic. But we have no reason to deviate from our path and every reason to stay on it,” Wang said, stressing that China’s prosperity can only take root in a peaceful environment.
Time will judge how competition between the US and China develops.
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