Analysis: US-China relations deteriorate from new disagreements over Ukraine and Covid-19

It gets worse every day.

An already inflamed relationship between the US and China is being exacerbated by two fresh controversies — one over the exact origins of Covid-19 and the other stemming from stern US warnings that China must not arm Russia in its war in Ukraine.

The new disagreements are so fraught that the recent unprecedented diplomatic showdown over a suspected Chinese spy balloon that floated across the continental US is not even the most recent or intense cause of strife.

This trio of confrontations — along with rising tensions between US and Chinese forces in Asia and escalating standoffs over Taiwan — are dramatizing a long-building and once theoretical superpower rivalry that is suddenly a daily reality.

Ukraine tensions: The US, citing unpublished intelligence, has spent the last week warning that China is considering sending lethal aid to bolster Russia’s forces — a situation that would effectively put China on the opposite side of a proxy war with the US and NATO powers that have sent billions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine.

Beijing has long amplified Russia’s justifications for the invasion, which took place a year ago shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the Chinese capital to agree to a friendship with “no limits” with Xi.

China would prefer Russia, which shares its autocratic form of government, not to suffer a total defeat in Ukraine — which could lead to the ousting of close ally Putin. And China increasingly tends to view its global interests through the prism of its standoff with the US, so it may perceive an advantage in Washington being locked in an arms-length conflict in Ukraine that is costing billions of dollars and to which it is sending reserve military equipment and ammunition that can therefore not be used to bolster its Pacific forces. Delays in procurement in the US arms industry caused by Ukraine could also slow the flow of weapons to Taiwan.

Yet a decision by China to throw in its lot with Russia in Ukraine would amount to a radical change in foreign policy — and another massive plunge in US-China relations. Washington and the European Union would certainly respond with sanctions on Chinese firms, a threat that will likely give leaders in Beijing pause, as the country’s economy slowly recovers from years of Covid isolation.

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