The United States and China appear no closer to easing mounting tensions despite a recent flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of upcoming trips by high-profile U.S. officials to the Indo-Pacific region.
Instead, officials from both countries in recent days have spoken publicly of showing strength while also lamenting the lack of progress in a variety of talks.
"Deterrence today is real, and deterrence is strong," Ely Ratner, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told lawmakers Thursday during a hearing focused on Washington’s China policy.
"The department is making historic progress toward a regional force posture that is more mobile, distributed, resilient and lethal," Ratner said. "We have a U.S. military that is more capable, more distributed across the region, and more deeply integrated with our allies and partners."
Speaking alongside Ratner, Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told lawmakers efforts are underway to ensure that competition between Washington and Beijing does not boil over into conflict.
"Intense competition requires intense diplomacy," he said. "We are committed to managing this competition responsibly and to maintaining open lines of communication with the PRC [Peoples Republic of China]."
Three senior U.S. officials have made trips to China in recent weeks, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and climate envoy John Kerry.
And while not an official U.S. visit, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is in Beijing this week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The 100-year-old Kissinger is revered in China for the role he played in opening relations between Washington and Beijing in the 1970s.
But according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi’s message for Kissinger was one of caution.
"China and the United States are once again at the crossroads of where to go,” Xi said. “The two sides need to make new decisions.”
Xi’s words echoed warnings a day earlier by China’s ambassador to the U.S.
"This is, frankly speaking, a difficult time for China-U.S. relations," Xie Feng said during a panel Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, describing the foundations of the relationship between the two countries as "still fragile."
"There's a Chinese saying that we will not make provocations, but we will not flinch from provocations," Xie said, adding that when it comes to some of Washington’s recent actions, "The Chinese people cannot remain silent, and the Chinese government cannot sit idly by."
Xie and other Chinese officials have pointed to Washington’s support for Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that China claims as its own.
Washington’s long-standing policy has been to acknowledge Beijing’s claims but not endorse them. But U.S. military and political support for Taiwan, including a trip by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last August, have rankled Chinese officials.
"The first and foremost thing we should bear in mind is that Taiwan is China's Taiwan," Xie said Wednesday in Aspen, warning that the actions of those he described as "Taiwan separatists" cannot be tolerated.
"This is a very dangerous path they are taking," he said. "The priority for us is to stop [Taiwanese Vice President William Lai] from visiting the United States, which is like a great rhino charging at us."
Xie repeated Chinese government assertions that "no one is more eager or sincere than China to see a peaceful solution … to see a peaceful reunification" of China and Taiwan. But U.S. military and intelligence officials have their doubts.
"President Xi [Jinping] said he wants to be ready by 2027" to take Taiwan by force, U.S. Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said earlier this week in Aspen.
"We certainly ought to be ready before then if we're doing our jobs," Aquilino added. "With what we have today, I'm confident that they would fail."
But Aquilino and other military officials warn China’s rapid military modernization and expansion has been "second to none," with Beijing also growing bolder in how it uses its military might.
That combination, along with China’s refusal to talk with U.S. military and defense officials, has Washington concerned.
"Military to military communication remained closed, and that's unfortunate," John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, told VOA on Thursday.
"You want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to your opposite and try to take the tensions down, and to avoid miscalculation," he said. "When you have that kind of military hardware sailing so close together, flying so close together, the potential for miscalculation and risk only shoot up if you can't talk to one another."
In the meantime, top U.S. officials will continue their outreach to allies in the Indo-Pacific, many of whom are likewise concerned about Beijing’s behavior.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Blinken are set to visit with key allies in the region, including Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, starting next week, hoping to further cement security arrangements aimed at curtailing China’s influence.
Austin’s visit to Papua New Guinea, building on a recently signed defense cooperation agreement, will be the first-ever by a sitting U.S. defense secretary, underscoring the importance of such alliances.
Other allies are also pushing for more U.S. help, citing growing pressure from China.
"We don’t look at them as friendly," Palau President Surangel W. Whipps Jr. said earlier this week of repeated Chinese incursions into his country’s territorial waters.
"It looks like they have other intentions," he said, in response to a question from VOA. "I think it’s time for some [U.S.] destroyers to show up and say, 'What are you doing in our waters?’"
VOA congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson, White House correspondent Anita Powell and State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching contributed to this report.