Relations between China and the West are off to a rocky start in 2021. Observers watching China and the U.S. trade accusations in Alaska, and Europe and China trade sanctions days later can be forgiven for a cold feeling in the pit of their stomach. Beijing’s tolerance for economic risk in the service of nationalism has rarely looked higher.
That could bode ill for many, not least Taiwan and the littoral states of the South China Sea. The trade conflict between the U.S. and China has metastasized into a broader geopolitical confrontation—while China’s armed forces are nearing parity with the U.S. in the former’s backyard. Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone have at times become a near daily occurrence since late 2020, while the U.S. is busy rallying allies such as Japan to plan for contingencies.
A significant conflict between the U.S. and China in East Asia is still unlikely, but it can no longer be ruled out as an implausible tail risk. Companies need to start considering what that could mean. And governments need to find mutually acceptable ways to take the temperature down if they want regular business to remain possible.