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US and China making efforts to reset relations but military proximity could spell danger

White House warned this week that the apparent overly aggressive actions of China could mean ‘someone gets hurt’

US president Joe Biden has said on several occasions he considers the United States to be in competition but not in conflict with China.

But it seems clear that relations between Washington and Beijing have been deteriorating.

And this week the White House warned that if things continued on the current path with what it sees as overly aggressive actions on the part of the Chinese military, “it won’t be long until someone gets hurt”.

A reset of relations had seemed on the cards earlier this year. But the discovery of a Chinese balloon over the United States last February, believed by Washington to be a surveillance craft, put paid to a planned visit by the US secretary of state Antony Blinken to Beijing.


And while some of Biden critics would seem to favour a softer line with Russia, few on the right are demanding a more emollient stance with Beijing.

Indeed a Wall Street Journal report this week that China is to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility in Cuba to capture communications from across the south eastern United States will probably add to the anti-Beijing rhetoric.

Comments this week by the US national security council co-ordinator for strategic communications John Kirby about “growing aggressiveness” on the part of China came against a backdrop of two recent incidents in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea involving US and Chinese ships and aircraft.

Last Sunday the US navy released a video of a Chinese warship crossing about 140m in front of a US vessel in what it described as an “unsafe interaction” in the sensitive waters of the Taiwan Strait.

This followed on from an earlier incident on May 26th when a Chinese fighter intercepted a US reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea.

The American side maintained its RC-135 aircraft was forced to fly through the wake turbulence of the Chinese jet which flew right in front of its nose.

Beijing said its actions were “completely reasonable, legitimate, professional and safe”. It blamed the US for provocations.

For Washington, the recent events were not just the isolated actions of a couple of hot-headed pilots or naval officers.

Rather it sees them as a move by the Chinese to push the US out of areas which Beijing considers to be its own.

Washington insists it is a Pacific power and that it will not be forced out of international sea lanes and airspace. This raises the possibility – maybe likelihood – that there will be further such incidents.

“From our perspective, we’re flying, we’re sailing, we’re operating in international airspace and international waters. And both of those incidents were in complete compliance with international law. There was absolutely no need for the PLA (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) to act as aggressively as they did.

“It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt. That’s the concern with these unsafe and unprofessional intercepts. They can lead to misunderstandings. They can lead to miscalculations.

“When you have pieces of metal that size, whether it’s in the air or on the sea and they’re operating that close together, it wouldn’t take much for an error in judgment or a mistake to get made, and somebody could get hurt,” Kirby said.

He suggested the Chinese may have been trying to send a message to Washington – “a statement of some sort of displeasure about our presence in that part of the world”.

He said: “But as the president said very clearly in Hiroshima [at the recent G 7 summit], we are a Pacific power; we’re not going anywhere. We’ve got serious commitments in that part of the world. Five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Indo-Pacific. The vast majority of international economic trade flows through the Indo-Pacific. We’ve got real needs there, and we’re going to stay there.

“If the message that they’re trying to send is that we’re not welcome or our presence needs to be diminished, or they want us to stop flying and sailing and operating in support of international law: not going to happen.”

But diplomacy is still going on. Washington said that two top officials, from the White House and the state department, were in Beijing this week. And there are reports that Blinken’s visit to China may be rescheduled for later this month.

The state department said this week that the US was looking to “continue to have a predictable relationship” with China.

“President Biden has been clear. We don’t seek any kind of new cold war, and our competition must not spill over into conflict.”

However, with the militaries of countries operating in proximity, the danger is that accidents could happen.