Just passing anger in a tumultuous relationship, or the start of a lasting antagonism? US diplomacy walks a fine line in its relationship with China, leading experts to fear long-term consequences.
The visit to Taiwan of the president of the House of Representatives of the United States, Nancy Pelosi, provoked the wrath of China, which considers the island part of its territory.
And the White House, so far very measured, condemned the “irresponsible” behavior of Beijing, as well as its military maneuvers near Taiwan, while striving not to further complicate a particularly tense relationship.
According to Washington, Pelosi’s view of the island changes nothing in terms of the one-China policy.
“We do not want a crisis, we do not seek to provoke a crisis” with China, the spokesman for the National Security Council, John Kirby, insisted on Friday, after asking Beijing to lower tensions in the region and desist from its military maneuvers.
But that did not prevent China from suspending all cooperation with the United States on global warming and other areas on the same day, while also carrying out the largest military exercises ever organized by that country near Taiwan.
Pelosi’s visit to the island, which provoked the ire of Beijing, also revealed the vagueness of the concept of “strategic ambiguity” that the United States has maintained regarding the Taiwanese government for decades.
The White House tried to prevent the trip, but without directly asking Pelosi to postpone it so as not to appear to give in to pressure from Beijing.
– Two fronts –
Experts say the timing of the trip was particularly poorly chosen, warning of a dangerous escalation as the United States and its Western allies find themselves in indirect conflict with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
“We don’t know if these tensions are only temporary, but the timing of the visit was particularly poorly chosen,” Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the German Marshall Fund of the United States research center, told AFP.
“I don’t think we are headed for armed conflict,” he adds, “but the Sino-US relationship is going through a very bad time right now.”
The expert considers “particularly worrying” the suspension of crucial cooperation agreements for the stability of the region, such as maritime military cooperation that precisely seeks to avoid an escalation.
For Glaser, the United States undoubtedly “underestimated” the anger provoked in Chinese public opinion and the reaction of President Xi Jinping prior to the Communist Party congress, which will take place in the fall and should ratify him for a third term.
Another expert, Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, estimates that “the consequences of missile fire and other provocative military acts will be felt in the coming days and possibly weeks, as will other Chinese measures.”
“The extent of Chinese retaliation seeking to show its disapproval of Pelosi’s visit may not be known for some time.”
For journalist Thomas Friedman, the United States ran the risk of “being dragged into indirect conflicts with two nuclear powers, Russia and China.”
“It is the basis of all kinds of geopolitics: you don’t open two fronts at the same time with the two other superpowers,” he wrote in a New York Times article published just before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
However, other experts are less alarmist and say that the Chinese authorities do not want war.
“It is clear that a prolonged period of tension is likely to begin,” Timothy Heath, of the Rand Corporation, described to AFP.
But “I don’t see any sign that the Chinese leadership or the party apparatus are preparing their people for open war, just to take back Taiwan. Xi Jinping…doesn’t really want to go to war with us.”