The tit-for-tat consulate closures by the U.S. and China have escalated tensions to a troubling new level. A full-on clash between the world's two largest economies would do immeasurable harm to a global economy already exhausted by the coronavirus. It is all the more crucial that Washington and Beijing find ways to head off a worst-case scenario.
The lows to which bilateral ties have sunk were symbolized in a speech last week by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who took direct aim at the entire political system led by the Chinese Communist Party.
"If the free world doesn't change, communist China will surely change us," Pompeo warned.
These remarks came alongside the U.S.-ordered closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston. Washington alleged that the facility was being used as a base for espionage and intellectual property theft.
Interpreting these moves as simply a political gambit by U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the upcoming presidential election misses the full picture. Both Trump's Republican Party and the Democrats across the aisle regard Chinese authoritarianism with growing alarm.
Beijing has implemented with unexpected speed its new security legislation for Hong Kong, which deprives citizens of freedom of speech and presents a challenge to liberal values such as human rights. Bipartisan lawmakers in the U.S. took the initiative to prepare sanctions legislation that would punish those involved in the crackdown.
In retaliation for the consulate closure, China has shut down the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. If Washington takes more drastic measures in return, the two countries could become stuck in a diplomatic quagmire.
The friction is already affecting the situation in the South China Sea. Five years ago, President Xi Jinping promised then-U.S. President Barack Obama that Beijing would not militarize reclaimed reefs in the region. That pledge was easily reversed. Since then, U.S. media have reported deployments of surface-to-air missiles and military aircraft there.
The Trump administration has dismissed Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea as "completely unlawful." Australia has recently taken a similar stance, submitting a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this month stating that Canberra "rejects any claims by China" that are not based on international maritime law.
The U.S. and Australia are expected to affirm their close cooperation when their top diplomats and defense officials meet this week.
In response, China has launched live-fire drills in the northwestern part of the South China Sea, challenging U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the region. An accidental clash is not out of the question.
Relations between Washington and Beijing are at what some consider to be their lowest point since the normalization of the bilateral relationship in 1979. Although improving the situation in the short term may be difficult, the two sides should explore ways to manage and avert crises, such as by enhancing security dialogue.