30 May 2020

Evan Osnos - US/ China relationship dangerously unstable

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 30 May 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased tensions between the US and China, but it's unlikely it will lead to armed conflict any time soon, author Evan Osnos says. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump

Chinese president Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump Photo: AFP

Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

He told Kim Hill on Saturday Morning a deep distrust between the two countries had grown in recent years, even before the Trump Administration, but it had escalated in recent months. 

"I was quite significantly worried by the end of last year, and then the pandemic has tipped the US/China relationship into a new and additionally worrisome spiral, I'm afraid."

The two countries have blamed each other for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, US President Donald Trump has pulled funding for the World Health Organisation, saying it's become a puppet organisation of China, and has announced that he will start to end preferential treatment for Hong Kong in trade and travel, in response to a new security law pushed by Beijing.

When asked if he thought the heightened tensions could lead to armed conflict, Osnos - an expert on the two countries' relationship - said he didn't - not for now, anyway. 

"In the short-term, and not to be melodramatic about it, no. I don't think these are two countries that are determined by ideological reasons to go to war with one another," he said. 

"Occasionally you have a situation in which you have, let's say two governments that have a fundamental claim to a piece of territory for which each one sees an existential risk in abandoning the claim, so this is not a case like that. This is a case in which I think there is a subtler but very worrisome dynamic."

The risk was that each side would assemble a block of countries and divide the world into separate spheres, he said. 

"And that creates a dangerous bed for a moment of ignition. Because you can end up with what would be ordinarily a small conflict, let's say two ships in the South China Sea that have a collision, and instead of it being handled in the ordinary protocols of diplomacy or military negotiation, instead you get a moment of ignition, and that's the real risk."

That's how wars start, he said. 

Evan Osnos

Evan Osnos Photo: supplied

The relationship between China's foreign ministry and the US State Department under Mike Pompeo had broken down, which was incredibly dangerous as it meant the countries didn't understand each other's motives, Osnos said.

"Right now there is no meaningful discourse going on between the two. I'm not speculating - I know that for a fact....

"And very often that's the scenario that is the most volatile because you end up where each side is trying to imagine what the ultimate objectives of the other are. Are they hostile? Do they seek to undermine our right to rule, either in China or let's say in America, security guarantees in the Pacific. And that's a very volatile situation. So this is a moment that cries out, I would say, for a reset."

The two countries needed to look at areas where they could cooperate, but Osnos didn't think that would happen anytime soon.