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South China Sea territory disputes intensify U.S-China tensions


Today, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said he prefers that China take control of neighboring Taiwan through peaceful methods rather than military means, even as Chinese fighter jets have been conducting military drills in the airspace around Taiwan. This has been deeply worrying to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that shares a maritime border with China. But it is also the latest flashpoint between two world superpowers, with the United States supporting Taiwan and pushing back against what it sees as aggressive and destabilizing actions from China.

We thought this would be a good time to get some insight on the dynamic between the U.S. and China, so we called Bonnie Glaser. She is the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, which is a nonpartisan policy organization. Bonnie Glaser, thank you so much for joining us.

BONNIE GLASER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: People have been hearing about the conflict between the U.S. and China for some years now, but it seems to have escalated in recent years. So first, I just wanted to ask if you would take a step back and help us understand the main sources of tension.

GLASER: Well China's power has been rising, and its military capabilities are growing. Its economy is growing, and it's actually narrowing the gap with the United States, which of course, has been the sole superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And China, not surprisingly, wants to defend its own interests as it has more capabilities. And it has been acting more assertively abroad and pursuing policies at home that are also intended to enable China to dominate in the 21st century critical technologies.

And Xi Jinping has been ruling in a much more authoritarian way than previous Chinese leaders, so there's been a lot more friction between the U.S. and China. And basically what they're trying to do now is to establish a new equilibrium between the two countries as this power balance gets closer.

MARTIN: So in recent years, the Chinese government, as you just mentioned, has invested heavily in their military. And one area we see this especially is in the South China Sea. Can you give us some background on the conflict there? Like why there and why now?

GLASER: Well, the South China Sea has been an area that's been disputed for many years. There are six different claimants, and the Chinese have been building these outposts, which they really turned into military bases. And so they have been operating these very, very large Coast Guard ships and intimidating the other countries, not enabling them to develop the resources that are, really, rightfully theirs under the Convention and the Law of the Sea. So this includes fish, it includes energy, and they've also been using these military bases to signal that they might have some claims that go beyond legal maritime claims.

And the United States and other Western countries are concerned that they will block freedom of navigation in the region. So we've seen the naval assets - not just of the U.S., but also Japan, Australia, France and other countries - that have been conducting exercising in the South China Sea just to demonstrate that these waters should remain open for everyone.

MARTIN: So I don't want to diminish the experience of this for Taiwan, but just keeping our focus on the dynamic between the U.S. and China. A record number of Chinese fighter jets and bombers have been performing military drills close to Taiwan in recent days. So how does the island play into the larger conflict between the U.S. and China?

GLASER: Well, Taiwan is really the one issue that the U.S. and China could really go to war over. And let's remember that both China and the U.S. have nuclear weapons, so if that escalated, this would be truly catastrophic. China, of course, sees that Taiwan is basically a province of China. And so Xi Jinping, I think, many worry might give up on peaceful unification and eventually use force against Taiwan. So these flights are really intended to warn Taiwan not to go too far to pursue independence. They're also aimed at inducing a sense of psychological despair among the people, so they will essentially give up and agree to be part of China.

MARTIN: Why does the United States back Taiwan in this conflict?

GLASER: The United States has a long history of relations with Taiwan, and also Taiwan is a democracy, a vibrant democracy. And the United States shouldn't take a position - and doesn't - on whether Taiwan is a sovereign state - whether it should eventually join China. Ultimately, that's up to the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, those in China and in Taiwan. But we have a deep and abiding interest in ensuring that they settle those differences peacefully.

MARTIN: This week, the CIA announced that it would create a new China Mission Center, which CIA Director William J. Burns said, quote, "will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government," unquote. I'm going to ask you, as an analyst, do you agree that China is the United States' most important geopolitical threat?

GLASER: I agree that China is the most important geopolitical challenge, and in some ways, yes, poses a threat to the United States. That is not a threat of invasion of the continental United States but is a threat to American interests around the world, not just even in the - around China's periphery. But China at the United Nations is trying to push its own definition of human rights, which is not the universal definition. They don't support freedom of access to information on the internet, for example. So we have very, very different values. And I see China's trying to push its values into the international system. That really causes me to be worried. So I think the CIA is doing the right thing, and this is emblematic of what the entire administration is doing.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, are there areas in which China and the U.S. are or could be working as partners? Or is it just doomed to be adversarial?

GLASER: Well, I'm glad you asked that question because I don't believe that the relationship should be exclusively adversarial. And there are so many global issues that our two countries can work on, along with the rest of the international community. I think climate change is at the top of that list, but also nonproliferation, as it relates to North Korea and Iran. We certainly could be working together on Afghanistan, where China has - it's very close to Afghanistan and has interests there. And we could be sharing information on law enforcement issues, counter-narcotics - where we are, in fact, working with China, I think, quite successfully. The list is truly endless. And recently the Chinese have been attaching conditions to cooperation, saying that the United States has to improve the atmosphere in the relationship in order to have a summit between President Biden and President Xi Jinping, but also in order to cooperate on really any issue. And I hope that we get to a point where China sees that it is in its interest to cooperate. So we can compete, but we can also cooperate.

MARTIN: That was Bonnie Glaser. She's the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. Bonnie Glaser, thank you so much for joining us.

GLASER: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.