Accelerating Conflict Escalation

Feb 24, 2023

What are we to make of the sharp increase in the pace of conflict escalation between the United States and China? In the past five years, the two nations have gone from a trade war, to a tech war, to the early skirmishes of a new cold war.  That has been a rapid pace of conflict escalation by any standards.

But in the past two weeks, the speed of escalation has increased dramatically.  Starting with the shooting down of the Chinese surveillance balloon on February 11, there has been one setback after another — a dizzying pace of conflict escalation that truly makes your head spin. Tensions over Taiwan have intensified, as senior US officials (from the Pentagon and Congress) traveled to the island bringing assurances of support and assistance that are very much at odds with a 50-year “One China” policy.  The two top diplomats of both nations — Antony Blinkin and Wang Yi — were anything but diplomatic as they engaged in another spat strikingly reminiscent of their initial acrimonious meeting Anchorage in March 2021.  And Washington has warned that it now has verifiable evidence that China is providing lethal military aid to its “unlimited partner,” Russia, in support of its brutal, illegal campaign in Ukraine — evidence that could well trigger a new round of severe US sanctions on China.

Of course, these very recent developments have hardly occurred in a vacuum. They follow the sharp intensification of the Sino-American tech war that occurred late last year following the Biden Administration’s imposition of draconian export sanctions on Chinese access to advanced semiconductors.  Without these chips and the supply chain contributions of Japan and the Netherlands that supports their production, America’s strategy of China containment has been elevated to an entirely new level — taking dead aim on Chinese efforts in AI and quantum computing that are critical in China’s push for indigenous innovation.

The danger of an accelerating pace of conflict escalation is very real. Rapid-fire sparks to conflict can easily get out of control, triggering equally rapid-fire retaliatory responses that could quickly ignite the high-octane fuel of conflict escalation that has been evident since the trade war commenced in 2018.  Mistakes can easily be made.  The near miss between Chinese American fighter planes in late December over the South China Sea is a case in point.  As the balloon incident so clearly demonstrated, the lack of effective military-to-military communications between the two nations puts these accidents in an especially dangerous light.

Will this dangerous intensification of conflict escalation bring China and the United States to their senses?  We can always hope for the best.  Indeed, there were some whispers of balloon diplomacy prior to the Blinken-Wang setback on the sidelines of the Munich security conference last week.  But obviously, that didn’t pan out.  Without a more robust architecture of engagement between the United States and China  there are no guardrails to prevent one setback from cascading into the next.  A “US-China Secretariat,” as I argue in the final chapter of Accidental Conflict, could make a real difference — before it is too late.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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