IN EAST ASIA, relations between China and America make the strategic weather. “When they are stable, the region is calm; when they are roiled, the region is uneasy,” noted Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean diplomat, in a recent lecture. In truth, ever since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 and opened the modern era in Sino-American relations, the sky has rarely been entirely clear; but nor has it often been clouded by so many disparate disagreements as now. As the two countries’ bureaucrats from a range of ministries gather in Beijing on June 5th for their eighth annual mass date, the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” (S&ED), rivalry is trumping co-operation. The best that can be expected this year is that the dialogue helps stem a slide into something more dangerous.

An implicit challenge by China to the American-led world order has become explicit, as will be apparent at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual high-level powwow on regional security to be held in Singapore from June 3rd to 5th. The venue China has chosen for this contest is the South China Sea, where its territorial claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam (and are mirrored by those of Taiwan). That is where it has been throwing its weight around most alarmingly.   

China’s building over the past three years of artificial islands on some much-disputed rocks and reefs has perturbed the littoral states and exposed the hollowness of America’s naval predominance. American might has not deterred the construction spree; and it is hard to see how, short of full-blown war, the new islands will ever be either dismantled or snatched from Chinese control. America and China accuse each other of “militarising” the sea. Having insisted its island-building in the Spratly archipelago was for purely civilian purposes, the Chinese defence ministry used a row last month over its fighter-jets’ dangerous buzzing of an American reconnaissance plane to argue for “the total correctness and utter necessity of China’s construction of defensive facilities on the relevant islands”.

In fact, despite sending warships on “freedom-of-navigation operations” near Chinese-claimed features, and having an aircraft-carrier group on patrol in the sea, America seems to be trying very hard not to provoke China too much. China is also anxious to avoid conflict. The prime concern of the ruling Communist Party is to retain power. As a way of losing it, fighting a war with America might be the most certain as well as the most catastrophic. Yet, at a time of slowing economic growth, the party increasingly relies on its appeal to Chinese nationalism. In this sense, as Mr Kausikan noted elsewhere in his lectures, “the very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the South China Sea may well be part of their attraction to Beijing.”

Nobody expects America to go to war over a Spratly.

What alarms America is that Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea seems to fit a pattern.

In a speech on May 27th Ash Carter, the defence secretary, made a point belaboured by American leaders: that “On the seas, in cyberspace, in the global economy and elsewhere, China has benefited from the principles and systems that others have worked to establish and uphold, including us.” What, Americans wonder, is China’s problem? No country has gained more from the current order. Yet now, said Mr Carter, “China sometimes plays by its own rules, undercutting those principles.” The result: a “Great Wall of self-isolation”. Chinese analysts counter that America, too, plays by its own rules. A foreign-ministry spokeswoman accused Mr Carter of being stuck in “the cold-war era”, and implied his officials were typecasting China as a Hollywood villain.

Indeed, as Mr Carter suggested, it is not just in its maritime adventurism that China is at odds with America. Old differences widen, as new ones crop up. It is hard for American leaders to ignore human-rights lobbyists, at a time when China is conducting one of its harshest crackdowns on dissent in recent years. Nor is American business brimming with enthusiasm for China. Rather, it grumbles about cyber-espionage, the theft of intellectual property, the stalling of negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty and a general perception that the trajectory of economic policy in China is no longer towards gradually increasing openness, but towards greater autarky and protectionism. It does not help that massive Chinese overcapacity in industries such as steel is generating trade disputes and fuelling anti-Chinese tirades in America’s election campaign.

It used to be argued that, despite manifold areas of tension between China and America, the relationship was so complex and multilayered there would always be mitigating areas of mutual benefit. One of the reasons why relations are so fraught now is that such bright spots are so few. Most hopeful are shared commitments to move to cleaner energy and limit carbon emissions. Last year’s S&ED saw a “breakthrough”, on curtailing the ivory trade to protect elephants. The two countries are also co-operating for now in trying to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But the suspicion lingers that China worries more about the enforcement of sanctions that might topple the odious regime in Pyongyang than about North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

One no-trump
A final reason for scepticism about the S&ED’s prospects is the leadership politics of the two countries. It is a forum for bureaucrats. But China’s have to some extent been sidelined under the presidency of Xi Jinping, who has grabbed power for small party groups that he heads. So, in Beijing, the Americans may be talking to the wrong people. And, on their own side, Barack Obama’s presidency is ending. China may have taken his cautious foreign policy into account in pushing its claims in the South China Sea. It doubtless suspects that under either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, America is likely to be less of a pushover.