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Don’t get too excited: The US-China truce will be short-lived

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Global financial markets rejoice! It seems, at least for the moment, the United States and China will take a pause in what was becoming a fierce trade war that had the potential to shave trillions of dollars off global GDP growth.

According to reports by Bloomberg and other media outlets, both nations agreed to halt imposing new tariffs. Beijing made out especially well in the agreement, since this means a halt to what would have been a massive increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods come Jan. 1, 2019, from a 10 percent tariff to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of imports to America.

{mosads}But don’t get too excited just yet. Although the news is certainly encouraging — no wants to see the No. 1 and No. 2 economies and military powers at each other’s throats — the long-term trend is clear: Washington and Beijing, for the foreseeable future, share completely different visions of what the 21st century should look like, and who should dominate the future.

History is clear on how this usually ends — with bloodshed — and considering that America and China have nuclear weapons, we should all be concerned about what happens next.

For China, it’s all about regaining its place in the sun. Beijing looks at Asia as its natural sphere of influence, something that was stolen by Western powers who took advantage of its relative weakness and exploited the so-called “middle kingdom” for its own designs.

Now with an economy worth $12 trillion and a military to match, President Xi Jinping has set a course to erase that “century of humiliation” — and in a hurry. It is only now that China is strong enough to regain its dominant place in Asia. That means pushing to ensure that Taiwan someday returns to the fold; that both the East and South China Seas become Chinese “blue water soil”; and that hundreds of billions of dollars in business subsides and outright technological theft will ensure Beijing never again is treated in such a manner.

Such ambitious goals, if achieved, would turn China into a superpower and master of Asia — and put Beijing in Washington’s crosshairs. America’s goal in Asia, at least until recently, was to ensure its dominant position in the region and maintain the peaceful status quo it has underwritten since the end of World War II.

But as China’s economic and military muscle grew — along with its ambitions — America’s own Asia policy began to shift. During the Obama years, we saw the creation of what was called a “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific — or what could be called a “soft containment” strategy. The goal was to use a collection of beefed-up alliance networks, the now doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and a larger U.S. military presence — along with a stronger effort to promote cooperation where possible with China to deter any moves by Beijing to overthrown the existing order in Asia. That effort largely failed; it was never properly resourced, thanks to defense sequestration, and America’s attention shifted elsewhere with conflict in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS.

Enter Team Trump. Advised by China hawks Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon, Robert Lighthizer and others, the new administration sought to outright contain Beijing. Even before taking the oath of office, President Trump took a call from Taiwan’s president — in Beijing’s eyes, from the leader of a renegade province — and that rocked China to the core. Now, one of the factors in the rebuilding of the U.S. military focuses on taking on “great powers” (yes, that means China). And with the imposition of tariffs, sending U.S. naval and air assets near areas of Asia it disputes as its own sovereign territory, it is clear this administration will not back down any time soon — trade truce or not.

There is a risk of danger for the future. There are many different pressure points in the U.S.-China relationship that surely a time of tensions is here to stay in Asia. With American and Chinese military assets in close range along China’s near seas and airspace, just one false move or mistake by a tired or stressed fighter pilot or naval office could spark a crisis.

In fact, we were given a preview of what could happen in 2001, when a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet struck one another, causing the stricken American plane to land in China. While the crisis was solved peacefully — with the U.S. crew returned safely and the plane sent back in pieces after Beijing ripped it apart for its secrets — that was a very different time, with the stakes much lower, and before 9/11.

Let there be no doubt: the U.S.-China relationship we knew is dead and buried. Enjoy today’s truce, because it won’t last long.

Harry J. Kazianis is Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@Grecianformula.

Tags China China–United States relations Donald Trump Robert Lighthizer Steve Bannon Tariffs trade war Xi Jinping

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