Analysis: Balloon episode shows US-China crisis management weakness

From Taiwan to tech trade, thornier problems lurk in bilateral ties.
By Paul Eckert for RFA
2023.02.12
Analysis: Balloon episode shows  US-China crisis management weakness In this handout image courtesy of the US Navy a US Coast Guard helicopter flies over a debris field during recovery efforts of a high-altitude surveillance balloon in the Atlantic ocean, Feb. 4, 2023
AFP

It wasn’t an errant meteorological vessel as Beijing claims, but the Chinese spy balloon that drifted across the United States before being shot down off the Atlantic Coast did carry a forecast: more stormy weather ahead for U.S.-China ties.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a planned trip to Beijing after the suspected spy balloon was spotted over Montana last week. The U.S. military shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 4, prompting protests from Beijing.

Anger in the U.S. Congress has spiked and new revelations of the scope and capacities of China’s surveillance program continue to emerge as the U.S. Navy retrieves remnants of the Chinese balloon and the FBI analyzes evidence.

China has rejected U.S. accounts of the balloon episode, with China rejecting a Pentagon request for a phone call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe, citing the lack of goodwill on the U.S side.

The timing of the balloon incident sparked speculation about deliberate sabotage of the Blinken visit, but China experts mostly say that is unlikely. They warn that the incident will distract from efforts to stabilize bilateral ties to deal with future potential crises in Taiwan, the South China Sea.

"There were expectations that early 2023 would be a window of opportunity for Washington and Beijing to get to work on building the guardrails for the relationship that both sides recognize are vital for preventing confrontation,” said Patricia Kim of the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Washington has spoken of building guardrails or setting a floor on ties, which have deteriorated over longstanding disputes like Taiwan, as well as trade and technology, amid ideological competition between Washington and Beijing.

Highlighting the broader battle of ideas in his a State of the Union speech on Feb. 8, President Joe Biden waxed passionate.

“In the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracy has grown weaker, not stronger: Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping,” he said. “Name me one.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, Feb.  8, 2023. Credit: AFP
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, Feb. 8, 2023. Credit: AFP
Distraction from true dangers

Last year, Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met and agreed to resume high-level talks that had largely stalled during China’s COVID-19 lockdown and friction over trade, security and human rights.

“With more information coming out about China's vast surveillance balloon program, and Beijing having dug in its heels that this was a  civilian weather vessel and that the U.S. overreacted by shooting it down, it's hard to see the restoration of the moderate diplomatic momentum we saw following the Biden-Xi meeting at Bali anytime soon,” Kim told Radio Free Asia.

With presidential election season approaching in both the United States and Taiwan, also looming in 2023 is a potential visit to Taiwan, a self-governing island claimed by Beijing, later this year by U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

China experts warn against letting the balloon episode distract from bigger, more dangerous issues.

“This incident is unlikely to escalate further or fundamentally alter the trajectory of U.S.-China relations,” says David Sack, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“But it offers an important window into the fragility of the relationship between the world’s two largest economies and the difficulty they would have in managing a real crisis as leaders in Washington and Beijing would seek to protect their political flanks,” he wrote.

US President Joe Biden (R) and China's President Xi Jinping (L) shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Nov. 14, 2022. Credit: AFP
US President Joe Biden (R) and China's President Xi Jinping (L) shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Nov. 14, 2022. Credit: AFP
Xi’s game plan

The spy balloon incident argues against holding the hope that Xi Jinping, fresh from being appointed to a third term as China’s top leader, would temper his approach to diplomacy after a decade of his assertive, authoritarian rule has ruffled feathers with much of the outside world.

Xi’s abrupt abandonment of his failing zero-COVID policy amid street protests early this year inspired conjecture that other problematic policies—support for Russia in Ukraine, military incursions near Taiwan and aggressive actions in the South China Sea—might be modified by a comfortably entrenched Xi.

But nothing like that has happened so far.

“I don't see like anything in Xi Jinping's rhetoric or behavior that suggests that they're thinking about playing it nice. If anything it was more of like a temporary pause,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

“They recognize that the situation has gotten worse for them, but they tend to blame outside forces outside of their control. And this balloon incident’s no different,” she told RFA.

China’s widespread spying is not a shock to retired British diplomat Charlie Parton, who argues the U.S. should have sent Blinken to Beijing to “put all the blame on the Chinese” by raising the balloon case at every level.  

“Of course China is doing this sort of thing, all forms of spying and surveillance. When hostility to the U.S. is the basis of all foreign policy­—by 2049, trying to reduce America to number two status, with China becoming the number one—” that’s what you do,” said Parton, of the British think tanks Rusi and Merics.

“Is (the balloon episode) a rupture or a hiccup? Frankly, it’s more of a hiccup in the sense that relations between the two countries ain't never going to be good with the current regime.”

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