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Foreign Policy

Can U.S.-China Relations Recover After the “Silly Balloon” Incident?

May 31, 2023

President Joe Biden is optimistic about the future of U.S.-China relations, which he expects to improve “very shortly.” He dismissed the February balloon incident that essentially froze contacts as “silly,” and these comments came after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Wang Yi, Beijing’s top diplomat, with further high-level contacts expected. 

However, the president’s optimism may be premature. He spoke at the press conference concluding the G-7 summit, which had targeted the People’s Republic of China for its “malign practices” and “economic coercion.” It was Washington which treated the “silly” balloon saga as anything but, cancelling Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-awaited trip to the People’s Republic of China. 

In the press conference Biden said that the administration was considering lifting sanctions on the Chinese defense minister to facilitate a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, only to be later contradicted by his own officials. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning dismissed Biden’s hopes: “The U.S. side asks for communication on the one side, yet on the other, suppresses and contains China by every possible means.” Beijing responded by blacklisting the American semiconductor chip producer Micron Technology Inc., an obvious retaliation for Washington’s restrictions on Chinese firms. 

In fact, ties between the world’s two most important nations have been in freefall for months. Last summer House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan inflamed Beijing’s concern over sovereignty and security, filling Washington with talk of potential military conflict between the U.S. and PRC. 

Soon thereafter, the administration launched a new wave of economic attacks against China, seeking to block that nation’s access to sophisticated chips. In January the new House majority established a select committee whose purpose is to demonize all things Chinese. Individual states are targeting Beijing—banning the purchase of farmland and use of TikTok, for instance. And Washington has taken the lead in criticizing the PRC’s use of trade as a weapon. 

China poses a serious challenge to the U.S., greatly enhanced by the former’s ability to conscript nominally private actors in the world’s second largest economy. However, a breakdown in relations between the world’s two most powerful countries would endanger not only global prosperity, but international peace. Getting along has obviously been a challenge.  Falling out could be catastrophic. 

U.S. officials must set aside moral indignation and assess how their words and actions are perceived. Making policy requires seeing the bilateral relationship plain. What the U.S. administration intends matters little. What Beijing believes Washington intends matters much more. And to China, America’s actions suggest ill intentions and growing hostility. 

That’s the message I received in talking with Chinese diplomats as well as semi-official retired emissaries. Obviously, such discussions are calculated and reflect the regime’s political agenda. Nevertheless, passion and detail sometimes suggest something deeper. 

Taiwan was one such issue. I had several urgent consultations about the Pelosi trip. Since then I’ve had longer, less hurried meetings with senior diplomats. The message has been serious and consistent.

It is necessary to stop “worsening the problem.” The U.S. has changed the status quo, which now leans toward Taiwanese independence, with a “constant succession of behavior,” including training by U.S. troops, weapons sales, and the president’s statement that “independence is up to Taiwan.” Asking Beijing to go back to waiting is no solution, since it now believes that “peaceful ambiguity means peaceful independence eventually.” If a push by Taipei for independence is inevitable, “why should they wait” to act? 

America’s actions force them to respond, preventing any return to the status quo. “We are very much alarmed.” Washington worries about events that it believes are speeding up efforts to force reunification, but they “are only a response to increasing American activities supporting Taiwanese independence.”

The Chinese people “believe America’s goal is to provoke us into taking action, to entrap us in conflict” and disrupt economic modernization. The goal is to “prevent China from competing with the U.S..” Needed are “regular meetings, regular contact.” Then both governments “will know more what the other intends, what motivates the other side.” Also important are “guardrails, rules, to ensure that incidents do not get out of hand.” In 2001 the two governments were able to work through the mid-air collision. “If it occurred today it would be much harder. Both sides would want to look tough.” 

However, “Biden is losing credibility.” The “Chinese people now say after such a dialogue, the U.S. takes actions that hurt us.” Why should we meet to “exchange empty words?” 

As for U.S. complaints about the China-Russia relationship, Beijing obviously wants positive ties: “we do not want to see a million Russian troops on the border.” Washington also needs to look at America-China-Russia relations. Washington “is doing a lot to press Beijing toward Russia,” including “ocean patrols, economic restrictions, and verbal attacks.” Against Moscow the U.S. expanded NATO. Against China the U.S. “is setting up new alliances, like AUKUS. Even NATO is trying to do more in the Pacific.” 

On China’s position toward the Russia-Ukraine war there “is not much difference from many developing countries,” such as India. In fact, the latter has “more sophisticated Russian weapons than we do.” However, “you need India now and just turn a blind eye to it.” In any case, in setting Moscow’s policy “we can’t expect the Russians to listen to us.” 

My Chinese interlocutors dismissed threats of disengagement: “you had this kind of policy before and it failed.” Washington and Beijing went “22 years without diplomatic relations, very little trade, and few people-to-people exchanges.” The result was two major hot wars. The U.S. had a hardline policy before and it failed, which “is why Nixon changed it.” 

Thus, disengagement is “not the way out.” We need to find a new way to get along. China “doesn’t have the capability to change the U.S. and the U.S. can’t really change China.” It’s not good for either side to engage in ideological warfare. Attempting to separate the CCP from China won’t work. “There are some 90 million party members plus family members. CCP members are Chinese people.” 

Although the foregoing sentiments should be digested with an appropriate quantity of salt, they nevertheless should help guide U.S. policy. Both governments need a better sense as to what actions and claims are likely to trigger disputes and conflicts. In today’s inflammatory environment, especially with an upcoming U.S. presidential election, clashes once started are difficult to end. 

It also is important to avoid rhetoric and activity seen as undermining essential interests, such as the status of Taiwan. Reaction begets retaliation, in a cycle that could dangerously inflame tensions. Finally, maintaining a civil relationship requires managing expectations. Both governments have what they believe to be existential interests and won’t voluntarily surrender them, at least absent horrendous cost. Accommodation and compromise are vital on both sides. 

Even if the president’s optimism is warranted, Washington and Beijing have much work to do to maintain basic peace and meaningful cooperation between their two nations. That will require officials from both nations to listen to each other.

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