The risk of China-US military conflict is worryingly high

The writer is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, and a China Forum expert

The relationship between China and the US is in freefall. That is dangerous. US defence secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to visit China this year, which shows the Pentagon is worried. That Wei Fenghe, China’s defence minister, spoke at length with Mr Esper in August shows that Beijing is worried too. Both men have agreed to keep communications open and to work to reduce risks as they arise.

The crucial question is: how?

In July, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo inverted a famous line of Ronald Reagan’s about the Soviet Union and applied it to China: “trust but verify” became “distrust but verify”. Washington suspects that an increasingly coercive China wants to drive the US out of the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing meanwhile believes that the US, worried about its global primacy, has fully abandoned its supposed neutrality on the South China Sea. Haunted by economic recession and the pandemic, and desperate for re-election, President Donald Trump has also made confronting China his last-straw strategy to beat his opponent, Joe Biden.

The risk of a mistake is therefore high. It is one thing for the two countries to point their fingers at…

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