Those expecting a more measured approach by the US and China to their relationship after four years of bomb-throwing diplomacy by former US president Donald Trump would have been startled by the first face-to-face meeting of top diplomats from the two nations. It was a fiery affair, with both sides more than willing to snipe at each other in front of the cameras.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began the blunt talk by stating his wish to discuss “our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, economic coercion toward our allies” (Australia was surely top of mind), and how these concerns threatened “global stability”.
His Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, shot back that it was hypocritical of the US to complain about China’s human rights record and accuse it of cyber espionage, given the history of racism against African Americans.
Some expert observers described it was a new low in relations between the two global economic powerhouses, while others saw it as a welcome exchange that finally put on the table the very real differences not only in trade – as Mr Trump mostly focused on – but on issues of security, technology, democracy and human rights.
In times past, America’s more aggressive stance may have given China pause for thought, but the communist state made it clear it has no intention of taking a backward step.
While such a stand-off may conjure Cold War comparisons, this is a far more complex state of affairs. The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was largely about military might and influence over proxy states, but their economies were largely separate.
China’s history of spreading its economic influence across the globe both as the world’s factory and a major global builder of infrastructure means its relationship with America (and most Western democracies) is far more interdependent. This creates an almost unresolvable scenario where most Western nations are having to co-operate with China at the same time as they compete with it across economic and ideological fronts.
These competing forces turn relations with Beijing into Rubik’s cube-style diplomacy where a change on one front – human rights an obvious example – can lead to unintended consequences across a range of economic and security fronts.
This has been most obvious in Australia, where the push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and an insistence on publicly raising issues of human rights and political influence has led to Beijing imposing more than $20 billion in trade strikes on Australia.
So what will the fallout be for Australia now that the Biden administration has put on public display a more outspoken approach to China?
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