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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
China recently cancelled a meeting between U.S. and Chinese military leaders that was scheduled for the middle of October. China touted this planned diplomatic and security dialogue as an important meeting; U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was to meet with a senior Chinese military official.
In cancelling the meeting, China announced that the official would not be available to meet with Mattis. This change of plans by China is hardly surprising, given the current state of affairs between Washington and Beijing.
The Worsening State of Diplomatic Relations Between the US and China
Over the past few weeks – longer if one includes the trade war salvos – the U.S. and China have taken actions against one another that do not bode well for future diplomatic relations between the two nations. Recently, the U.S. sanctioned the People’s Liberation Army’s Equipment Development Department and its director, Lt. Gen. Li Shangfu, for the PLA’s procurement of fighter aircraft and missile systems. The U.S. then proceeded to sell $330 million in military equipment to Taiwan, which angered China.
As a result, Beijing denied a port visit to Hong Kong by the USS Wasp and the Chinese navy executed a dangerous nautical move by coming within 45 yards of the USS Decatur at sea. The Decatur was forced to quickly move away to avoid a collision. Such is the risk of U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Trump’s Threat to Levy Tariffs Not Helping to Improve US-China Relations
In the midst of all this activity, President Trump threatened to levy tariffs on all Chinese goods. Beijing has managed to respond in kind to each new U.S. tariff, but the trade relationship between the two powers is lopsided.
Although China’s domestic consumption has increased to support a burgeoning middle class, China still depends heavily on exports. That increase in domestic consumption, however, will not be enough to replace the diminished exports and any new trade deal will not replace the world’s largest consumer market in the U.S.
The U.S. is not immune to fallout from the trade war, which has had an impact on specific U.S. markets, including soybean exports. However, Washington is moving to supplement the farmers hurt by the Chinese tariffs. In July, Trump proposed a $12 billion emergency aid package for American farmers. But Congress has not yet acted on the request.
Is a Conflict with China Inevitable?
With mid-term elections on the horizon, Trump may have to battle Congress over trade issues. The reality of the trade war and overall frosty diplomatic relations is that it will become increasingly difficult to head off a conflict. If there is a military accident in the contested waters of the South China Sea or an economic downturn so severe that maintaining open sea lanes for trade becomes an existential necessity, diplomats will struggle to resolve the situation.
It’s not these deliberate moves and countermoves that are so worrying, although they have contributed mightily to the downturn in relations. It is the accidents that cannot be managed, because diplomacy has become a diminished option.
Each passing week that sees cancelled meetings and new tariffs will only serve to further damage U.S.-China relations because both nations have few choices to avoid correcting the imbalance. This isn’t to say that a conflict is inevitable or likely to occur in the near future, but the situation between the U.S. and China has become tense enough for concern.