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Tensions Rise: Experts Urge Diplomacy to Avert U.S.-China Conflict


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In a world plagued by heightened tensions and conflicts, particularly in regions like the Middle East, concerns are mounting that the escalating tensions between the United States and China may lead to a dangerous confrontation unless diplomatic efforts are prioritized.


The failure of East Asian governments to proactively advocate for diplomatic solutions to these escalating tensions is exacerbating the risk, warn experts. The focus on geopolitical competition with Beijing and the emphasis on deterrence over constructive engagement do not contribute to a safer global environment.


Diplomacy as the Solution


Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that responding to threats with threats creates a negative spiral that can ultimately lead to war. Kulacki is a member of the recently launched East Asia Quadrilateral Dialogue, a group aimed at promoting a more inclusive approach to diplomacy through civil society organizations to address regional and global problems.


The group argues that strengthening military power alone does not promote peace and highlights a critical lack of understanding of the associated risks. A myopic focus on military power could result in a security dilemma and increase the likelihood of minor incidents escalating into major conflicts.


Geopolitical Competition with Beijing


This warning comes as the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies enhance their deterrence and combat capabilities in response to regional tensions, particularly with China. It is argued that a crisis akin to the Ukraine conflict could occur in Asia, with Taiwan being a potential flashpoint.


The U.S. emphasis on an integrated deterrence strategy aims to enable greater burden-sharing and engage allies and partners at every stage of defense planning. However, experts argue that this approach may inadvertently encourage China to act more aggressively, especially with regard to Taiwan.


Zhiqun Zhu, an international relations professor, warns that deterrence without reassurance will not be effective. Failing to reassure Beijing that the U.S. does not support Taiwan’s independence could lead to China using force to achieve reunification. Treating China as an enemy may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Overblown Threat Perceptions


The debate revolves around the perception of the threat China poses to Taiwan and the existing international order led by the U.S. While concerns are valid, some experts argue that the characterization of the threat is exaggerated. This exaggeration may be driven by domestic politics or the U.S.’s desire to contain China’s rise.


Michael Swaine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft warns that the inflation of the threat diverts resources into military buildups and places undue pressure on other nations to choose sides. It also triggers alarmist responses from the adversary.


Regional Allies’ Role


Washington’s Asia-Pacific allies appear to be driven more by the desire for continued U.S. engagement in the region than by a strategy to encircle China. These nations often adjust their China policies based on shifts in U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.


Japan, in particular, relies on the U.S. for its defense, making it challenging for Tokyo to oppose U.S. security policies publicly. Japan’s concern about U.S. security presence in Asia appears to be preventing more significant efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region.


The Way Forward


Efforts should focus on confidence-building measures, stabilizing potential conflict areas, avoiding confrontation, and finding common ground to reduce tensions. A recent poll in Japan indicated public concerns about a potential conflict over Taiwan. This underscores the need for diplomatic solutions to ease the tensions.


As a U.S. presidential campaign looms, it is crucial to prioritize communication and diplomacy over hard-line approaches. A more pragmatic approach should replace the fatalistic view of U.S.-China relations, emphasizing common interests and real threats such as climate change and public health. Diplomacy remains a far better option than the path of confrontation advocated by some.

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