2023 looks increasingly important to fraught U.S.-China relations


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The U.S.-China relationship may be on a new trajectory this year

A general’s warning of war. President Biden’s aggressive diplomatic outreach. Dueling industrial policies. A demographic bombshell. Congress’s special new committee. Disputes over Russia’s expanded war in Ukraine. For fraught U.S.-China relations, 2023 looks increasingly pivotal.

For The World’s Most Important Bilateral Relationship (™), you could, of course, argue that all years are “pivotal.”

But whether you say China is a “revisionist power” out to reshape the U.S.-anchored post-WWII international order, or a “strategic competitor” or hostile rival in a “new Cold War,” recent news — including mounting expressions of bipartisan concern — suggests we’re on a new trajectory in 2023.

A general’s warning of war

One of the obvious flash points in the relationship is the fate of Taiwan, a self-governed island Beijing considers part of its territory, to be taken by force if necessary. Biden has repeatedly said the U.S. military would defend Taiwan if that happens.

So, of course heads turned and eyebrows lifted when Gen. Michael A. Minihan, who as head of Air Mobility Command oversees the Air Force’s fleet of transport and refueling aircraft, warned in a memo that China and America could be at war in two years.

My colleague Dan Lamothe quoted from the document on Friday: “‘I hope I am wrong,’ Minihan wrote. ‘My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. Xi secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.’”

Dan quoted an anonymous Defense Department official as saying the warning was “not representative” of the Pentagon’s view. But as Dan notes, other senior U.S. military officials have floated 2027, or even 2023 as possible windows for armed conflict.

Congress’s special committee comes together

The House of Representatives voted by a robust bipartisan margin to create a special new committee whose full-time job will be U.S.-China relations. Its chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), says the panel’s objective is “to win this new Cold War with Communist China.”

There’s a lot of room for bipartisan action on that front. We got a recent example when Congress banned TikTok from federal government devices. And Gallagher has publicly put a premium on getting legislation backed by both parties and supported by the White House. 

“There were brutal, meaningful differences and disagreements between the parties and within the parties in the first decade of the old Cold War. But by and large, we were able to build out a foundation for containment that served us well over the course of the…

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