Chinese Spy Balloon Pops Prospects for U.S.-China Rapprochement

Chinese Spy Balloon Pops Prospects for U.S.-China Rapprochement

The balloon incident reflects the emerging adversarial pathology of U.S.-China relations, which is increasingly obstructing any efforts at mutual understanding, and contributing to what many observers have already described as a new cold war.

On February 4, a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon and its payload fell into the ocean off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after a U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet destroyed the balloon with an air-to-air missile. With it went the potential for near-term improvement in U.S.-China relations. The day before, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had postponed a planned visit to Beijing, explaining to China’s top diplomat that the appearance of the balloon had “undermined the purpose of the trip.” He added that he hoped to reschedule the visit “as soon as conditions allow,” but given how the balloon episode unfolded it is not at all clear when that might occur.

The balloon fueled what can only be deemed hysteria in Washington and across the country, driven in part by political pressure on the Biden administration to eliminate the threat from China by shooting it down. The Pentagon, however, assessed that falling debris from a shootdown posed a greater danger on the ground than the balloon posed in the air, partly because U.S. countermeasures had minimized its intelligence collection capability. So the balloon drifted from Montana to South Carolina, spreading alarm and outrage before meeting its fate.

It also generated ample speculation about why China would conduct such a hostile and “brazen violation of United States sovereignty,” as the U.S. House of Representatives characterized it in a unanimous condemnation of the balloon’s flight. One of the prevailing theories is that a “rogue” element in the Chinese military intended the balloon to subvert Blinken’s trip to Beijing, presumably to prevent Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who had agreed to meet with Blinken, from engaging in diplomacy that might compromise Chinese interests or security. It is much more likely that the balloon was a routine intelligence operation of which Xi was tactically unaware, and that the Chinese military operators who launched it were inattentive to if not ignorant of Blinken’s visit.

Yet the narrative about the balloon in the United States has largely presumed deliberate and hostile Chinese strategic intent. Congressman Mike Gallagher, chairman of the new House “Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party,” said in an interview that he does not believe the timing of the balloon flight on the eve of Blinken’s planned trip was a coincidence because it would be “well within the CCP’s playbook” to try to humiliate Washington. Beijing did not help its case by claiming that the balloon was a “civilian airship” for “mainly meteorological” research—a weather balloon—that was blown off course by force majeure. The Pentagon was quickly able to refute this by confirming that the balloon was an intelligence collection platform.

But many questions remain unanswered that are highly relevant to assessing Chinese intentions. Although the “airship” was obviously not a weather balloon, it remains unclear whether it was in fact blown off course and out of its operators’ control. It is difficult to understand how the Chinese could have calculated that the balloon would have drifted across the entire continental United States without detection or a response. However, in the wake of the shootdown details began to emerge that multiple such Chinese balloons had previously entered or skirted U.S. airspace over the past several years without a U.S. response. Knowledge of those precedents almost certainly led the Chinese to anticipate that even if this balloon was detected, it was unlikely to be shot down—regardless of whether it was on its intended course. Moreover, Beijing—in a highly unusual step—expressed “regrets” for this “unintended” and “unexpected situation.” In addition, Chinese officials now claim that the United States has flown similar balloons over China.

The goal here is not to adjudicate the facts of the balloon incident and its origins and uniqueness. Rather, the point is that understanding what actually happened and assessing its implications requires an empirical assessment of the facts and the available evidence on Chinese intentions. In this case, however, the relevant facts and evidence have emerged only piecemeal, while in the meantime conclusions were drawn and narratives took hold—based in part on some problematic assumptions. This rush to judgment and action was driven in part by political pressure and inflated threat perceptions in the United States, and by Beijing’s deception and secrecy—which have undermined the credibility of any Chinese explanation or countercharges. This all reflects the emerging adversarial pathology of U.S.-China relations, which is increasingly obstructing any efforts at mutual understanding, and contributing to what many observers have already described as a new cold war.

This volatile dynamic is certain to pose serious challenges for rescheduling Blinken’s trip to China. The balloon incident has increased the stakes and perhaps moved the goalposts for his visit, partly by reinforcing a confrontational American approach to Beijing and intensifying the partisan political attention in Washington to Blinken’s trip. At the same time, the balloon may have significantly reduced the potential for the visit to yield positive results, given its impact on Washington and Beijing’s perceptions of each other’s strategic intentions and posture.

Even before the balloon appeared, expectations for Blinken’s visit were low. The original plan was to use the trip to follow through on notional agreements reached by Biden and Xi at the G-20 summit in Indonesia last November, and to take the next steps forward in establishing principles and “guardrails” to guide the relationship. But there had been little progress in that direction since November, and it appeared likely that Blinken’s trip would produce little more than a standard exchange of grievances.

After the balloon appeared and enflamed anti-China sentiment, White House officials reportedly judged that the trip “wasn’t worth the potential domestic political costs of going, given that Blinken’s talks were not expected to yield much in the first place.” This raises the vital question of under what circumstances the Biden administration would accept the “potential domestic political costs” of a rescheduled trip, given the inevitable political pressure on Blinken to extract concessions from Beijing in the wake of the balloon incident, and the inevitable uncertainty about Beijing’s willingness to accommodate that expectation. With that backdrop, it is hard to see when and on what basis “conditions [will] allow” for Blinken to go ahead with the trip.

Complicating this equation, and the prospects for a productive visit, is the Biden administration’s apparent calculation that the balloon incident strengthens Washington’s hand. This is based on both the notion that Beijing is obliged to make amends for the balloon incursion, and that Xi had previously launched a “charm offensive”—which was likely to include a newly accommodative approach to Washington—because Chinese leaders decided that they need to repair China’s global image and reduce external pressure so they can focus on recent internal policy challenges. This was reflected by an unnamed U.S. official who observed that “China’s foreign policy is a constant search for leverage,” but its defensive reaction to the balloon episode suggests that it is “nearly out of options” in that regard.

Washington, engaged in its own constant search for leverage with Beijing, appears to calculate that it has gained some as a result of Beijing’s misstep with the balloon. This adds a new layer to Blinken’s original agenda for his trip. According to a former U.S. diplomat, the Biden administration’s plan was to focus on highlighting problematic Chinese behaviors and suggesting ways for Beijing to reduce bilateral tensions, rather than suggesting ways the two sides could “play nicely.” Presumably, Blinken will double down on this approach whenever his trip is rescheduled, now with the balloon as ammunition.

This strongly suggests that Washington is focused more on scoring points against Beijing than on pursuing the kind of reciprocal engagement that both sides claim to be seeking and which Xi rhetorically invoked in his meeting with Biden in Indonesia. Indeed, in his State of the Union speech last week, Biden said he had told Xi that “we seek competition, not conflict,” and mentioned the potential for cooperation only as an afterthought. This was echoed a few days later in Congressional testimony by senior State Department and Pentagon officials, who reiterated that the Biden administration’s focus in its interactions with Beijing is “competing vigorously” with China, “managing that competition,” and “maintaining open lines of communication.”

For its part, Beijing is almost certain to deflect if not reject Blinken’s planned approach. Chinese officials have repeatedly criticized Washington’s focus on competition over cooperation in the relationship, and specifically the notion that the United States can deal with China “from a position of strength.” Chinese leaders almost certainly judge that Washington overestimates its leverage in the relationship and underestimates Beijing’s. They probably also judge—and probably correctly—that Washington is misinterpreting the rationale for Beijing’s recent “charm offensive,” which is likely aimed more at scoring points against the United States internationally than at seeking favors from Washington. Accordingly, Beijing is likely to balk at any attempt by Blinken to parlay the balloon incident into greater U.S. leverage with China.

Beijing, of course, has itself to blame for the balloon debacle. The operation may not have been “brazen,” inasmuch as the Chinese apparently didn’t expect the balloon to generate attention, and they uncharacteristically apologized for its appearance. But if it wasn’t brazen, it was stupid, ill-timed, counterproductive, and nonetheless a violation of U.S. sovereignty. As such, it was an unanticipated gift to the Biden administration’s characterization of China as a difficult and challenging partner. Moreover, Beijing’s explanations have been neither complete nor credible, thus undermining its indignation at the U.S. shootdown and complaints that “some politicians and media in the US have hyped it up to attack and smear China.” In addition, the Chinese military spokesman’s statement that Beijing “reserves the right to take necessary measures to deal with similar situations”—by hinting at potential retaliation against U.S. intelligence operations—bodes ill for a relaxation of bilateral tensions in the security realm. This all suggests that Beijing itself may now be more focused on scoring points against Washington than on finding a path toward substantive engagement.