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Among the recriminations and accusations, there was one point of consensus when American and Chinese diplomats met in the coastal city of Tianjin earlier this week: no one wants to see the world’s most important relationship deteriorate into armed conflict.
But there was little consensus on a concrete way to avoid that catastrophe. And that has experts worried.
Washington and Beijing have been trapped in a spiral of anger and suspicion for several years, but the situation has deteriorated rapidly since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid finger-pointing over the origins of the virus.
Meetings between the two sides are few and far between — and when they occur, such as in Alaska in March, they are bitter and confrontational. The US is without an ambassador in Beijing. There have been no moves to reopen the recently shuttered United States consulate in Chengdu or the Chinese consulate in Houston. And the appointment of a new Chinese ambassador to Washington, while a positive step, is unlikely to deescalate tensions in the short term.
There’s certainly no small amount of antagonism between the two sides at present. Experts point to rising brinksmanship over Taiwan and the expanding standoff in the South China Sea as possible military flashpoints with unpredictable consequences for both sides.
Speaking in Tianjin, both sides said despite the current state of relations, they wanted to avoid direct confrontation. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman underscored that while Washington welcomed “stiff competition,” it did not seek conflict with Beijing. Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Minister Xie Feng told Sherman the Chinese people “cherish peace.”
Yet Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said neither side had actually put anything in place to stop conflict from happening. No further talks are planned publicly, and expectations of a possible meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G20 in October weren’t raised.
“So there is room for further deterioration but there are no signs of possible improvement, even in areas where they have common interests,” said Lam.
At a speech in Singapore on Tuesday night, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said while the US didn’t want conflict with China, Beijing was showing an “unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law” in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and in the western region of Xinjiang.
At the same time, the United Kingdom — a close US ally — has sent a carrier group to the South China Sea, including the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and announced it would permanently deploy two warships to Asian waters.
Experts said the growing militarization of both the South China Sea and air and sea around Taiwan puts the US and China, as well as their allied nations, at risk of an accidental collision in a contested area or exchange of gunfire that spirals out of control.
Both sides have been able to cool tensions in the past, such as in 2001 when a US Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, leading to a tense 11-day standoff over the surviving American pilot. Eventually he was released and tensions cooled — but Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on US China Relations, said both sides might not be as keen to negotiate this time.
“They’re headed towards a train wreck here,” he said. In particular, Schell described the Taiwan Strait as the “Chernobyl” of international relations, with the repeated military drills and flyovers by Chinese aircraft a disaster waiting to happen.
“This is where the globe is most stressed, China and the US and Taiwan are right there at the epicenter,” he said.
Both the US and China have offered potential ways forward to avoid any further deterioration. Before Sherman went to Tianjin, US officials said they wanted to emphasize the need for “guard rails” in the US-China relationship. Washington has mooted the idea of creating an emergency hotline between Washington and Beijing, similar to the “red phone” between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War intended to allow for direct communication as a way to avoid major conflicts including nuclear war.
But there isn’t any public indication at this stage whether Beijing would sign up for such a plan.
Instead, the Chinese government presented a list of demands to the US side during the meetings with Sherman, which included lifting sanctions on Chinese entities, stopping restrictions on student visas and withdrawing its extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Schell said any talks between the two sides were better than none — and this one could be the “beginnings of a guard rail.” But he said the current and former US military officials he spoke to were “extremely worried” about the risk of conflict if better communication wasn’t established.
“There’s no mechanism to deal with these — there’s no red phone, there’s no (leading) groups, there’s no protocol, there’s nothing,” he said.
Japanese gold medalists face Chinese nationalist wrath
Some of the Japanese athletes who defeated Team China at the Tokyo Olympics have been subject to a storm of abuse on their personal social media accounts from Chinese nationalists.
On Wednesday, Japan’s Daiki Hashimoto won gold in the men’s all-around gymnastics final, edging out China’s Xiao Ruoteng by 0.4 points. At just 19 years old, Hashimoto is the world’s youngest gymnast to ever claim that medal.
As Japan celebrated his victory, some in China questioned the fairness of the result and accused the judges of favoritism toward host Japan by inflating Hashimoto’s score on the vault.
The anger, first set off on Chinese social media, soon spilled over to platforms typically censored by China’s Great Firewall and not accessible in China. Chinese trolls circumvented censorship and descended on Hashimoto’s Instagram account, inundating his feed with angry comments and tagging him in insulting posts.
Many called him Japan’s “national humiliation,” others accused him of stealing China’s gold medal. Some even tagged him in photos of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hashimoto later changed his privacy settings on Instagram, banning himself from being tagged, but angry comments have kept pouring under his posts.
Following the controversy, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) issued a statement Thursday explaining Hashimoto’s vault score, including a detailed list of the imperfections.
“The FIG can assess that the 14.7 score obtained by Hashimoto on this apparatus is correct in regards to the Code of Points, and so is the final ranking,” the statement concluded.
The nationalist rage against Hashimoto followed attacks on Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani, the Japanese table tennis duo who narrowly defeated the Chinese team to win the first-ever gold medal in mixed doubles Monday.
The attacks are an extreme expression of the rising tide of ultra-nationalism sweeping through Chinese social media in recent years, which has silenced many liberal and moderate voices. Some Chinese netizens have tried to call for an end to the online abuse, but they were also attacked.
China currently leads the overall medal table with 16 golds, followed by Japan — the hosts have claimed 15 golds so far. The United States is third with 14 golds.
Delta arrives in China
Staff members get to work at a temporary Covid-19 testing facility in Nanjing on July 28 as Chinese authorities scramble to prevent the spread of the Delta variant amid an outbreak linked to an airport in the populous eastern city. Infections connected to the airport cluster have since been reported in Guangdong province in the south, Sichuan province in the southwest, Liaoning province in the northeast and the capital Beijing.
It comes as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian revealed Beijing had provided its own suggested plan to the World Health Organization for a second investigation into the origins of Covid-19, looking into transmission “through an intermediate host or cold chain products.” Earlier this month, China rejected the WHO’s proposed investigation over its insistence that include the possibility of a lab leak.
Chinese state media is trying to calm investors after massive stock rout
It’s been a historically terrible week for Chinese stocks. Now China’s trying to placate investors as the country signals a range of sweeping reforms on private enterprise.
“There are some doubts in the market regarding the recent regulatory policies … in fact, these regulatory policies are not aimed at restricting or suppressing” industry, wrote the state-owned China Economic Daily in a Thursday editorial, joining other voices in the country calling for calm after a massive stock market sell-off.