Sino-US relations: breaking the Gordian knot

Alexander the Great cuts the Gordian knot by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743-1811) – Public domain

President Joe Biden’s national security team has failed to meet a major challenge, which is breaking the Gordian knot that has crippled China-US relations. It is time to take a page from Soviet-American relations in the 1970s and 1980s, which demonstrated that an institutionalized dialogue on arms control could produce a relationship of detente that would pay political and economic dividends. Presumably, China would not be interested in a dialogue on arms control at this stage given its strategic inferiority, but the possibility of a substantial exchange on space is certainly possible, which could open the door to talks on the climate challenge and even disarmament.

The chicken hawks in the mainstream media are demanding new challenges to China’s sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was bad enough, but now there are calls for regular congressional visits to the island. The first falcon New York Times‘ Aviary, Bret Stephens, argues that delegation visits should become “so routine that Beijing forgets to protest”. Other experts favor the transfer of “easily dispersed and easily concealed asymmetric weapons” such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ship missiles that have been successful in Ukraine against mediocre Russian forces.

There are regular articles in the New York Times regarding U.S. concerns about cooperation agreements between China and the Solomon Islands, which have suspended visits by U.S. and foreign military vessels. In recent months, the United States has sent military and diplomatic officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to the Solomon Islands to ensure that the United States Navy can continue to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. . This is a classic example of “thinking back” in light of the intense battles that took place on Guadalcanal, the country’s main island, exactly 80 years ago. US concern for the Solomons in 2022 seems bizarre.

Of course, US officials will use any excuse to stress the need for a large increase in military spending, ignoring the fact that the United States spends as much on its military and intelligence community as the rest of the world combined. Stephens and others favor “frequent transits of US Navy ships through the Taiwan Strait and an expansion of ‘secret joint training exercises’ between US and Taiwanese special operations forces. Their view is that only huge increases in US defense spending and force deployments can preserve East Asia’s peace and prosperity. The possibility of an unwanted confrontation or collision is entirely absent from these arguments.

Unfortunately, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long prohibited bilateral cooperation with China or any Chinese-owned entity, but this ostrich policy must stop. The same year the United States proclaimed the “containment” of China, Congress passed the Wolf Amendment which prohibits NASA from using federal funds to engage in direct bilateral cooperation with China. The father of China containment, Kurt Campbell, is currently the NSC’s Director of Asian Affairs. Meanwhile, Congress remains opposed to cooperation with China.

China is a space superpower; it has carried out successful missions to the Moon and Mars and will soon launch a solar probe. China’s strategic partnership with Russia includes space projects, including the announcement of a partnership to build an international lunar research station run by human crews. Due to their invasion of Ukraine, the Russians may not have the essentials and the financial resources to continue to contribute actively. This could be an opportunity for American involvement, but there have been no diplomatic moves from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

According to Bennett Seidenstein, a former NASA “teacher/ambassador”, the combination of US and Chinese orbital platforms would improve research opportunities in space and provide much-needed savings to both Washington and Beijing. Each rocket in NASA’s Space Launch System costs more than $1 billion, and the rockets are not reusable. Seidenstein believes that the deployment of American and Chinese platforms would provide more precise measurements in the study of the earth as well as in the atmosphere and climate change. Seidenstein notes that Sino-US cooperation in space would be vital in any rescue mission involving manned vehicles.

Advances in space exploration could open the door to a variety of economic and security exchanges in the international system. Any cooperative venture could lead to greater scientific and cultural exchange that would reduce the chances of friction and conflict. The Soviet-American disarmament negotiations had a positive impact which led to the charm offensive between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The United States and China could do more to pave the way for greater scientific exchange. The United States could develop a more cooperative attitude towards the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank of China and consider reducing the onerous tariffs that have been imposed on Chinese imports. US ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would give the United States more credibility on a variety of commercial interests in the East Asia and Pacific region.

The United States and China could easily moderate their propaganda attacks. The United States should certainly do so because its strategic position is unassailable in East Asia, with military superiority in various fields. China lacks strategic allies and global power projection. The United States has significant relationships with Australia, Japan, India, South Korea and various Southeast Asian states, a grouping that is beginning to look like an anti-China partnership. China makes no effort to project power to regions outside its neighborhood; the United States has hundreds of installations and bases around the world. President Biden must end the militarized approach to Asia and engage in bilateral dialogue.

China must recognize the need for rules of the road in space as well as in the world’s oceans. China has 9,000 miles of coastline and eight of the ten busiest ports in the world; it depends on unimpeded trade. The South China Sea is an obvious area for global cooperation. It contains approximately 12 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The seabed contains precious metals such as manganese and cobalt used in the manufacture of batteries for electric cars, smartphones and electronic equipment.

Instead of addressing Cold War relations with China and Russia, Biden is pursuing policies that bring Moscow and Beijing closer together. This must end! President Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot” from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific in 2011 was a complete failure as our Middle East commitments did not substantially change and our position in East Asia remains strategically complicated.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it is possible that an institutionalized dialogue on space will lead to discussions on arms control and disarmament as well as the climate crisis. As Winston Churchill argued, “jaw is better than war-war”.