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Foreign Policy

The U.S. and China Shouldn’t Allow a Balloon to Derail Relations

Feb 09, 2023

Chinese balloon.jpg

In this screen grab from a video, a balloon is shown floating over Billings, Montana, on Feb. 1, 2023. It was shot down by the US military on Feb. 4.

An errant Chinese balloon—Washington evidently believed its purpose to be more nefarious than measuring the weather as claimed by Beijing—caused U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his trip to China. Never mind the fact that Washington also uses balloons to gather intelligence. The Biden administration feared Republican Party attacks alleging weakness in dealing with the People’s Republic of China. 

Although the administration’s reaction reflected its perceived political vulnerability, the PRC shares the blame. Its decision to launch a surveillance mission shortly before Blinken’s planned visit was foolish. The impact proved similar to that of past and expected future congressional visits to Taiwan, a needless provocation unnecessarily undermining bilateral relations. 

It is imperative to put an end to the deterioration in ties. Beijing and Washington must preserve at least a minimal level of communication and cooperation. The danger of a full-fledged rupture between the two nations is catastrophic. 

War is no longer unthinkable. In late January a memo from a U.S. Air Force general predicting war in 2025 was leaked to the press, with administration critics repeating its warnings. This follows the shift to a new, more dangerous “normal” in the Taiwan Strait, with increased Chinese military activity, in response to the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Although Beijing is responsible for making waters around Taiwan more dangerous, the U.S. has carelessly increased Chinese fears of Taiwanese separatism. 

As U.S.-China relations appear headed toward a variant of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, it is worth considering some lessons from that experience. Although the bilateral contest was dangerous, the two governments managed to co-exist and ensure their nations’ survival until the USSR collapsed in 1991, a peaceful end to what could have been a global nuclear war. 

First is the imperative of avoiding full-scale conflict between nuclear powers. Neither Washington nor Moscow was shy about using military power, but both were cautious in confronting each other. The USSR intervened in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, all within its sphere of interest, as well as Afghanistan and Vietnam. The U.S. fought major wars in Korea and Vietnam, and relied on more limited, especially irregular, missions elsewhere. Only in Cuba did the two antagonists come close to combat, reflecting the island’s location in America’s proclaimed sphere of interest. And that confrontation caused the two governments to be more cautious afterwards. 

With talk of conflict over Taiwan rising, both Beijing and Washington should recognize the need to avoid a military clash. If restraint and deterrence fail, the result would be a serious conventional war with inevitable pressure to use nuclear weapons. The economic consequences of any conflict would be enormous throughout Asia and around the world. And it might take more than one war to settle which country would dominate the Asia-Pacific, rather like Germany’s rise, which led to five wars over eight decades, including World War II as the capstone. 

Second, though American and Soviet forces sometimes clashed, directly or indirectly, the two governments generally avoided truly dangerous proxy fights and refused to turn limited confrontations into global wars. For instance, Moscow’s aid to North Vietnam and America’s support for the Afghan Mujahedeen killed plenty of Americans and Soviets, respectively, without sparking a direct confrontation. Soviet pilots flew combat missions against the U.S. over North Korea, which Washington did not reveal to the American public. There were other proxy battles in Africa and Latin America. Today the U.S. is underwriting a major war against Moscow with minimal camouflage, but the Biden administration so far has set limits in hopes of avoiding a direct clash. 

Third, the two governments talked. Although contact was rarely friendly, it was critical for avoiding conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis and arranging a peaceful end to the Cold War. The importance of robust ties with the PRC were highlighted in 1950, when the lack of contact forestalled a peaceful modus vivendi between Beijing and Washington as allied forces pursued defeated North Korean forces toward the Yalu River, and 2001, when diplomacy resolved the EP-3 spy plane incident. 

Fourth, there was never complete economic decoupling, even with the smaller amount of commerce. The Soviet Union sold natural gas, oil, and minerals in return for food and manufactures. America was most noted for selling grain to the ever-hungry Soviets, whose collective farms always fell short in feeding the Soviet people, just as the PRC’s Mao-era agricultural collectives failed disastrously. Even modest economic ties with the West may have helped limit Moscow’s appetite for confrontation, since they benefited the USSR economy, maintained valuable nonpolitical contacts, and illustrated the potential gains from economic reform. 

The Cold War relationship between the U.S. and Soviet Union is no model of friendship, but it illustrated how two well-armed ideological adversaries could maintain the peace while competing sometimes violently around the world. That should be the bare minimum for the Sino-American relationship in coming years. 

Building from there will require effort. Including an ability to talk past the balloon incident. Indeed, maintaining some degree of stability to U.S.-China ties will be essential over the next couple years. 

The GOP is certain to use the newly created House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party against both the Biden administration and Xi government. The PRC almost certainly will be a central issue in the upcoming presidential election, as both parties attempt to paint themselves as tougher than the other. During this time even a seemingly small incident—such as an otherwise unexceptional spy balloon—could drive the relationship off the rails, with potentially dire consequences.  

Washington and Beijing might find it impossible to be friends in the coming years. However, it is essential that they avoid becoming enemies. The Cold War reminds us that even tough adversaries were able to keep the peace. America and China must set that floor and build from there.

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