A steady drum beat of Chinese rhetoric regarding China’s resolve against the United States and its allies and partners has led some observers to warn of military conflict over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or some other flashpoint. However, the posturing also coincides with a degree of Chinese compromise and moderation in dealing with these same competitors.
Beijing is making unacknowledged compromises and failing to take action after warnings in dealing with the United States and its allies and partners in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, these same partners are increasingly working together to counter the wide array of challenges posed by China.
A significant compromise involving the United States came at the Joe Biden-Xi Jinping summit on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022. The two leaders met in the wake of Beijing’s show of force surrounding Taiwan following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei that August. The Biden government and Congress stood firm. Following the episode, Congress approved legislation providing over half a trillion dollars for high technology competition with China and executive action from the White House cut off U.S. advanced computer chip technology to hobble China’s ambitions. Biden also publicly reaffirmed that if China attacked Taiwan, the United States would take military action to defend the island.
Against that background, Xi scrapped China’s list of preconditions for talks aimed at establishing what the Biden administration called “guardrails” that would help avoid war as U.S. competition with China increased. Originally, Beijing’s demands involved lists of steps the United States needed to take to improve relations with China before the U.S.-desired talks could go forward. In contrast, at the 2022 Bali summit, Xi made no reference to any such preconditions in agreeing with Biden that such talks to avoid military conflict should begin.
This agreement was sidetracked by the unexpected tension caused by a Chinese spy balloon crossing the United States and the ensuing public acrimony between the two governments, but the agreement was reaffirmed during the Biden-Xi summit in California in November 2023.
This wasn’t the only example of China’s government backing away from previous demands.
Earlier, U.S. allies in Europe were warned repeatedly of negative consequences if they adhered to U.S. demands to ban Huawei and other Chinese high technology firms from their sensitive communications networks on grounds of national security. This issue was overwhelmed by the enormous negative European reaction to China serving as the main international enabler of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Most European powers and the NATO alliance for the first time came to see their security interests as being closely impacted by China’s expansion at others expense in Asia, and well as by Russian expansion in Europe. European partners stood with the United States in opposition to China’s coercion against Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Though China strongly condemned NATO and its new involvement in Asia, Beijing overall reacted cautiously, seeking with little success to avoid worsening the backlash with a moderate approach stressing common ground with European governments.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing used the occasion of a change in Australian government in 2022 to drop its wide array of sanctions and other punishments for Australia siding with the United States in hardening its policy toward China. The moderation continued even though the new Australian government aligned ever more closely with the United States, and with Japan, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries, as well as with the members of the Quad, the AUKUS alignment, and NATO. Those moves were often criticized by Chinese media and officials but there was little follow through action.
In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has over the past year staked out a firm position defending Philippine claims to China-controlled or -claimed territories in the South China Sea. Manila aligned much more closely with the United States, as well as with Japan and Australia, seeking support for more military capacity and domestic development, while ending the previous president’s dependence on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The Marcos government began to routinely film and publicize for global audiences the violent pressure tactics used by China Coast Guard and maritime militia forces to intimidate Philippines security forces in the disputed South China Sea. It provided U.S. forces access to bases located near the disputed territory and bases located in the north of the country with excellent access to Taiwan. U.S. forces in return provided aerial surveillance for Philippine forces challenging China’s disputed control and worked together or in tandem with Philippine forces in armed patrols in the disputed seas. All of the above elements were criticized by Chinese officials and media, but little substantive action was taken.
Similarly, President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea ended the cautious hedging of the previous government to align more closely with both the United States and Japan against North Korea and China. Beijing employed sharp criticism and threats but failed to dissuade Seoul from what turned out to be an unprecedented convergence of the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral. Triangular cooperative arrangements are pursuing common interests at odds with China in areas including the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Pacific Islands, and a variety of high technology development plans. Here again, angry rhetoric from China was not followed by substantive action against South Korea.
The full significance of this trend of compromise and moderation remains unclear. It is happening concurrently with China’s signaling of firm resolve against the United States and its allies and partners. Beijing continues its coercive pressures against Taiwan and in the disputed South and East China seas. Appealing to governments in the Global South, authoritative Chinese foreign policy statements stress a stark choice between cooperation with avowedly beneficial China or Washington’s purportedly exploitative, divisive, and destructive initiatives.
For now, the moderate trend seems to argue against those viewing China as seeking military confrontation or conflict under current circumstances. More conclusive judgments will depend on Chinese choices between restraint and assertiveness going forward.