OPINION

U.S. needs clear China policy

Looking back, it is hard to believe that in the Obama era there were serious discussions about whether a "G2" could emerge – with the U.S. and China coming together, never easily but earnestly, and in good faith, to tackle the world's great problems.

The costs of mutual hostility are now greater and clearer than they were back then: the risk of global economic recession, a failure to tackle the climate crisis, and even of military conflict in the future. Yet far from strengthening, bilateral relations have nosedived. The relationship between China and the U.S. is not only at its lowest point for years, but appears to be trapped in a downward spiral. For now Beijing, in particular, seems to be giving up on fixing it. Its support for Moscow has contributed to the deterioration, but is also driven by its belief that the partnership helps to buttress it against U.S. hostility. How and when the war in Ukraine ends could prove critical for U.S.-China relations.

In recent months, Beijing had appeared to step back from the abrasive "wolf warrior" diplomacy that helped to set alarm bells ringing not only in the west but more widely. But this week, Xi Jinping made a rare explicit criticism of Washington, remarking that "western countries, led by the U.S., are implementing all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us". Qin Gang, the foreign minister, warned that "the U.S. side's so-called competition is all-out containment and suppression, a zero-sum game of life and death".

Mr. Xi's message was probably directed in large part at his domestic audience. Nationalism, always useful to the party, has become more so as economic growth has faltered. His remarks also reflect China's conviction that the U.S. is driven as much by jealousy of its economic hegemony as by any principled concerns. But in Washington it was, inevitably, seen as upping the ante.

The newly formed House select committee on the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist party says it wants to raise public concern -- surely not lacking in a country where growing hawkishness towards China is evident across the political spectrum. Though Beijing's own actions are largely to blame for that shift, the change has bolstered its aggrieved conviction that it won't gain much from attempting engagement.

Rightful concern in the U.S. -- on issues ranging from China's increasingly forceful foreign policy to industrial espionage, and from the treatment of Uyghurs to the future of Taiwan -- is mixed at times with nationalism and even racism. That China is closing the economic, industrial and technological gap with the U.S. is unnerving Washington, but the real issues are surely how it has done so and how it plans to use its capabilities.

And while one committee member said it does not want to encourage xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment, not everyone criticizing China is scrupulous in discriminating between government and people or making sure others do so. A bill in the Texas senate would make it illegal for Chinese citizens to buy any property, including homes. The pandemic has already led to growing anti-Asian hate. Shrill, unfocused alarmism also makes it harder to concentrate on the issues that really matter and how to handle them. Under Mr. Xi, it is increasingly hard to read China's leadership accurately, and harder still to sway it. The U.S. could at least determine its own priorities and values more clearly.

-- The Guardian, March 11