Phase one of the US-China has failed to meet its purchase commitment in 'phase one' trade deal Image: Facebook

As historian Barbara Tuchman memorably observed in “The Guns of August”, World War I was the conflict no-one wanted but erupted nonetheless as powers sleepwalked into hostilities by underestimating the will of rivals to risk war. 

“One constant among the elements of [war] was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true,” she wrote in her classic account of the devastating war a century earlier.

Fast forward to today, the US and China are at least going through the motions of not repeating those mistakes. Top defense officials recently engaged in a dialogue aimed at avoiding possible armed clashes in maritime theaters, while at the same time dangerously flexing their muscles and fortifying positions in a fast-emerging new Cold War.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister Wei Fenghe late last week held a one-on-one phone call reputedly to defuse tensions, especially in the hotly contested South China Sea where many observers fear the two sides could soon clash.

In the first top-level bilateral meeting in months, the two defense chiefs discussed a wide range of traditional and non-traditional security issues, with the Covid-19 pandemic featuring as a key point of contention, according to reports.

During their 1:30 hour-long conversation, the defense leaders “affirmed the principles and importance of constructive, stable and result-oriented defense relationship between the United States [and China],” according to a Pentagon statement released on August 7.

Underscoring the sense of urgency, the Pentagon chief is expected to visit China before the end of the year to enhance a “crisis communications” mechanism with the expressed intent of avoiding accidental clashes and armed escalation in the Western Pacific.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a joint press conference with his Philippines counterpart at the Department of Defense in Manila on November 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

In recent weeks, the US has staged drills with two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, maneuvers China has said it views as provocations and a violation of its sovereignty. Esper and Wei also reportedly discussed sharing data and relevant information on both the pandemic’s origins and cooperative responses as the world scrambles for a vaccine.

US officials have repeatedly said that China should be held accountable as the pandemic’s country of origin. US President Donald Trump has vacillated on whether he believes China deliberately released the coronavirus to weaken America, which by all accounts it has both economically and militarily.  

Speculation is thus rising that Trump may aim to punish China for the pandemic in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for early November.

Trump currently lags rival Joe Biden in the polls but some reckon that could shift if the US was pitted in an open armed conflict with China, making Trump a “war-time” president when the vote is held.

The most likely theater for such a clash is the festering naval showdown in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, where many strategic analysts believe the next major global conflict could be sparked.

“[Esper] expressed concerns about [the Chinese military’s] destabilizing activity in the vicinity of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and called on [China] to honor international obligations,” said the Pentagon in its statement last week after the call. 

China’s state news agency Xinhua confirmed that the maritime disputes were a key point of discussion between the two officials, the highest level contact since the June meeting between Pompeo and Chinse Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Hawaii, which failed to defuse rising bilateral tensions. 

Wei was quick to push the blame to the US and its allies, warning of “dangerous moves” that could lead to armed clashes.

China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

The Chinese defense chief also reiterated Beijing’s condemnation of what it sees as the Trump administration’s “stigmatization” of China, from targeting leading Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and Tiktok to blaming the communist regime for the pandemic’s deadly global spread.

“[Wei] expressed China’s principled position on the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the US’s ‘stigmatization’ of China, asking the US to stop its wrong words and deeds, strengthen maritime risk management and control, avoid dangerous actions that may heat up the situation, and maintain regional peace and stability,” according to Xinhua.

Indeed, the top-level communication was held against the backdrop of fast deteriorating diplomatic ties.

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a major policy statement that rejected the bulk of China’s claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful” and inconsistent with international law.

Pompeo’s statement also effectively backed the claims of regional allies and partners over disputed land features and low-tide elevations in the area, including the Philippines’ claim over Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef.

In a sign of America’s rising assertion in the area, the Pentagon deployed 67 large reconnaissance planes to the contested region in July alone, a major escalation from previous months based on data compiled by the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.

The Chinese think tank accused the US of deploying a US Air Force E-8C plane on August 5 near the southern province of Guangdon and more than half a dozen E-8C surveillance crafts near China’s coastlines in July.

The US conducted dual-carrier naval exercises as well as several rounds of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the first half of this year, directly challenging China’s wide-reaching claims and in particular over disputed land features in the South China Sea.

Some analysts have speculated the US could soon challenge China’s hold on the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing has controlled since 2012 after a months-long standoff with the Philippines. The feature would be key for China to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the sea.

The US is also now actively bidding to garner the support of regional allies Australia and Japan as well as strategic partners like India to contain China’s assertiveness in the area. The so-called “Quad” countries, a loose alliance of like-minded democracies, also seek to counter China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean.  

The US is pulling diplomatic levers while ramping up strategic pressures. Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on top Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for implementing a controversial new national security law for the semi-autonomous city.

The US is also showing growing military and diplomatic support for Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province. US Health Secretary Alex Azar became the first cabinet official to visit Taipei on Sunday on a trip tipped to explore deepened cooperation.

Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait on Monday and were tracked by Taiwanese missiles, Taiwan’s government. The incursion was only the third time since 2016 that Taiwan has said Chinese jets had crossed the strait’s median line.

Whether the US and China are sleepwalking into a conflict is still unclear. Neither Washington nor Beijing said which side initiated the Wei-Esper call, and whether ongoing efforts at military-to-military diplomacy are expected to bear fruit. But at least for 90-minutes, the rivals’ defense chiefs recognized the dangers of the new Cold War turning hot.