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Foreign Policy

The Balloon Saga Reveals A Deep Trust Deficit – And That’s Worrying

Feb 27, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

A Chinese balloon was shot down on February 4 over U.S. waters. President Joe Biden ordered the takedown  after a week of elaborate speculation over the origins, mission, and eventual fate of the balloon. 

Indeed, the balloon proved to be a surprisingly effective shibboleth -- depending on where one stands on the Sino-American relationship, the balloon ranged from potentially being a deeply nefarious and deliberately planted tool of espionage, a surveillance equipment released by a mid-ranking defence official, to an innocuous meteorological balloon that was caught in the crossfire of geopolitical acrimony. 

What the balloon was, is not a question of particular significance. It could have been an anodyne weather monitoring instrument; it could also have embedded ulterior motives. There is no way of knowing for sure – though the American verdict leans clearly towards the latter

One way or another, at an age of precipitously fractious and fraught international relations, both intelligence and counter-intelligence efforts by major powers are likely to be increasingly ubiquitous. Monitoring and tracking, raising (within proportion) alarm over such activities, is a task that falls squarely within the remit of those preoccupied with defence and military security, which are nevertheless not domains in which most could or should claim expertise. 

What I find more germane, however, is the fundamental trust deficit that has been exposed by the saga – as well as the downstream implications for Sino-American relations, going forward. 

First, there is a lack of general trust between the political establishments in the U.S., with a growing bipartisan consensus on a more hard-line China policy, and in Beijing, which remains scarred by the unilateralist moves under Trump towards an arbitrary and diabolical trade war.  

Despite short-lived rapprochement and unthawing of relations in November and December last year, it is evident that the threat perception of China has not been diffused – and has been steadily increasing – despite apparent attempts at establishing a floor to bilateral relations towards the end of last year. As I argued elsewhere, whilst the Biden-Xi summit gave way to an “uneasy peace” between the two rival powers, such a modus vivendi was innately fragile. 

Post-Bali, the D.C. establishment remained convinced that China poses both grave normative and military-strategic threats to American interests, domestic or abroad. Similarly, foreign policy circles in Beijing remained convinced that the U.S. would not cede its place as a ruling power to the power on ascent – this perception is, in turn, a self-fulfilling manifestation of the oft-invoked Thucydides Trap narrative. 

Such simmering tensions came to a head over the visceral balloon – Beijing sees the opprobrium as an opportunistic attack that sought to thwart its diplomatic softening over the past few months; sceptics and cynics towards China in D.C. saw the incident as a vindication of their ‘China threat’ narrative – bolstered by the fact the balloon drifted over American soil. The fundamental architecture of bilateral relations has not shifted, yet the intensity and vocality of mistrust have palpably surged over the past few weeks. 

Second, there is also a dearth of specific trust between the defence apparatus and military of both governments. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested a call with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe in the aftermath of the balloon shooting. It was no surprise that Wei declined – the decision to shoot down the balloon had been viewed by the Chinese military as an active affront to its credibility and standing as an international actor, and Beijing needed to offer a clear signal of its disapproval of the means by which the incident had been handled. 

The rationale cited for the refusal of the call points to what the Chinese defence establishment seemingly takes to be the status quo in its relations with its American counterparts – the U.S. had “not created the proper atmosphere” for dialogue, exchange and collaboration. Such conditions are only due to be put under further strain – and thus increasingly detached from reality – as Washington turns to shoring up military and security alliances against Beijing. 

Trust does not emerge from a vacuum or come in abstract form. It behooves the careful cultivation of a long-standing, working relationship, such as the relationship between U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and outgoing Vice Premier Liu He. It remains to be seen as to whether post-March 2023, such experience-informed and personalistically rooted ties of trust could be preserved between Beijing and Washington. 

The upshot is clear. The appetite for a moderation in approach from Washington – on fronts concerning technology, defence, and military – remains limited. Whilst Beijing has expressed some signs that it is willing to pivot away from more bellicose and outwardly defiant postures, questions over endurability and continuity loom over its newfound diplomatic demeanour. The coming two years will be a most trying time for bilateral relations. 

With all that said, not all hope is lost. Xu Xueyuan – the chargé d’affaires at the Chinese embassy in Washington – has advocated that trade be a stabilising force to Sino-American relations. Indeed, a continued deepening of bilateral economic engagement, between private businesses, multinational corporations, a now-rejuvenating consumer market in China and a tightening monetary policy in the U.S. – which may finally help with shrinking somewhat the trade deficit – could prove to be pivotal in repairing the wounds in trust between the two sides of the Pacific. We can only hope that Xu’s vision can come and hold true.  

In this increasingly Strangelove-esque era, I am reminded of Nena’s 99 Luftballons: 

“Panic bells, it's red alert

There's something here from somewhere else 

The war machine springs to life

Opens up one eager eye

Focusing it on the sky

The 99 red balloons go by” 

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