Beijing’s rejection of “guardrails” in relations with the United States signals a dangerous turn
In a thoughtful speech in Washington last year, Foreign Minister Penny Wong appealed to China to pursue a joint strategic framework with the United States.
Referencing US President Joe Biden’s call for “guardrails” to enable the “responsible management” of competition between China and the United States, she said it was “in all the world’s interests” that Biden’s overtures were met by Beijing.
Wong repeated her call for guardrails to be set in place after China’s sharp response to Australia’s AUKUS nuclear-propelled submarine deal. “Nobody wants escalation”, was Wong’s message.
Given the collapse of trust between China and the United States and the fundamental differences that now define that relationship, a framework to help manage the risks inherent in competition is the very best we can hope for.
If competitive coexistence could be made to work, US and Chinese leaders and officials would meet regularly to discuss their differences and be clear about their respective red lines. The United States wants to reassure China of its strategic intentions, no easy task when Beijing is convinced, likely beyond any persuasion, that the United States seeks to prevent China’s rise and undermine the rule of the Communist Party.
Washington also sees an urgent need to “disincentivise” risky behaviour and develop more specific guardrails that could, for example, help manage dangerous incidents at sea or in the air between defence forces, or help bolster strategic stability as China expands its nuclear forces. At a very basic level, Washington just wants to be able phone Beijing in a crisis and have someone take the call.
All if this is necessary and important and would make Australia, not to mention the world, safer.
So far, however, China is not buying. Beijing rejects even the foundational premise of Washington’s position – that the US and China can get along while also competing toughly.
Beijing calls for a “different kind of great power relationship”, one that demands parity and respect for China and all its “core interests”. In practice, this would be a one-sided deal that no US Administration could or should take. It would mean, for example, not speaking up on human rights and accepting Taiwan and the South China Sea as Beijing’s “internal affairs”.
Beijing isn’t keen on specific guardrails, either - it fears these would legitimise US behaviour it regards as provocative. China doesn’t want to have to manage incidents in the South China Sea, for example, it just wants the United States out of the area.
Nor do crisis hotlines get much of a workout.
Beijing wouldn’t take calls from America’s military leadership during the spy balloon drama earlier this year, for example, because to do so would acknowledge there was, in fact, a crisis. In Beijing’s world view, China never creates crises, other countries simply over-react. This is farcical but creates tremendous risk.
And in a rigid, hierarchical system in which Xi’s word is law, even senior Chinese officials worry about picking up the phone without clear cover from above.
In March, China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, vented at some length about US approaches to competitive co-existence. Competition, he said, was simply a means to “contain and suppress China in all respects and get the two countries locked in a zero-sum game”. An America that sought to “injure” China was not engaged in “fair competition”.
As for guardrails, well, they were a trap and meant that “China should not respond in words or action when slandered or attacked. That is just impossible!”
Beijing’s rejection of risk-reduction and crisis-management mechanisms is a worrying turn of events given the now strongly adversarial nature of US-China ties. As steep as the odds look for success, there’s more than enough at stake for Australia to keep raising the urgency of such measures.
In doing so, Australia should recognise that though guardrails will require mutual give and take, the United States is not the primary obstacle to talks: the Biden Administration does not need convincing.
Australia has little pull in Beijing but it should hold China accountable for its refusal to engage on mechanisms to reduce the risks of dangerous miscalculation. And it should be clear in the region, especially Southeast Asia, where the problem lies. Australia could coordinate such efforts with Japan and possibly even India. More unified pressure from Europe would also help.
China’s wariness about guardrails in relations with the United States is part of a larger, dangerous pattern. Convinced that the tide of history favours China, and that the United States is bent on “containment and suppression”, Xi Jinping is not interested in any real compromise when it comes to concerns in the West about many of China’s foreign and domestic policies.
This both ratchets up tension and shuts down the space for diplomacy. Still, it does not rob the United States and its partners of all agency or policy choice. The onus is on Western capitals to plug away with cool heads and smart calibration of China strategies.
The idea of self-restraint grates because it is not often reciprocated by Beijing. But if competition is to exist within peaceful bounds, diplomacy and reassurance must continue to accompany deterrence and the hardening of our economies and societies.
This piece originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on April 14, 2023.