China and America is heading for a cold war. Mistrust is turning into something even more destructive: a contest between two irreconcilable forces, each convinced that the other is determined to thwart its opponent’s core ambitions and interests. The shooting down of the Chinese balloon over South Carolina is a test of the wisdom and will of both countries to prevent a confrontation from spiraling out of control. Results so far have been mixed.
On an optimistic note, the downing of the Chinese airship was a stroke of luck: a salutary but low-risk version of a crisis that could have been worse. In recent years, Chinese fighter jets and warships have taken dire risks to harass aircraft and ships belonging to the United States and its allies, often when Western armed forces display their flags or gather intelligence in international airspace and waters near China’s coast. Chinese commanders have been sending an increasing number of Chinese aircraft over the island of Taiwan, further raising the possibility of a collision.
When US missiles burst balloons, the main thing hurt is China’s self-esteem.That stands in stark contrast to the last known collision between military assets of the two countries, when a US plane crashed mid-air in 2001 EP3 spy planes and a Chinese fighter jet made an emergency landing in China, killing the Chinese pilot and leaving 24 U.S. crew members in custody.
Hopeful observers may note that Chinese propaganda has not really stoked public outrage over the impaled Chinese blimp. The major news outlets received little coverage of the matter. The quasi-official media had fun with it, mocking the US for overreacting to China’s alleged out-of-control weather balloon. As of this writing, China has not sought compensation and expressed regret, at least initially. Optimists might hope that public and political outrage in the United States will teach the Chinese military that a collision has consequences. For years, Chinese officials have shied away from discussing rules on close contact with their foreign counterparts, blustering that safety lies in keeping outsiders away.
Still, there is a more pessimistic way of looking at the event. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration regretted the death of the Chinese pilot to ensure EPRelease of 3 crew members. Partisanship would not be so restrained in Washington today. China’s self-righteous official statement this week failed to take into account the political pressure on President Joe Biden to destroy the balloon immediately from Republicans. Instead, China publicly protested when it was finally shot down. Furthermore, it accused the US of “hyping up” the story as if a free society could cover up an enemy balloon the size of a house visible from the ground.
The unsavory voice of Chinese messaging comes at a price. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to Beijing scheduled for Feb. 5-6 as the balloon drifted over his country. Mr. Biden and his advisers are said to have deemed the political backdrop too distracting to allow Mr. Blinken to have candid discussions with President Xi Jinping and other officials. The talks were meant to test China’s apparent desire to ease bilateral tensions and allow Xi to hear for himself how Biden sees the most acute thorn in the relationship. These include U.S. support for Taiwan, the Biden administration’s efforts to limit China’s access to advanced technology with military applications, and China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It wasn’t a “boy scout” visit to suggest policy areas where the two sides could “work well together,” said Daniel Russell, a former assistant secretary of state and Asia adviser in the Barack Obama administration, who now works at the Asia Society Policy Institute. . Instead, the aim is to shed light on Chinese behavior that could heighten tensions and suggest actions that could ease them. Mr Russel believes the two countries are in “uncharted” territory as they grapple with a new balance, balancing often incompatible goals and worldviews with deep economic integration.Mr Blinken’s trip was supposed to be “no joke guiding Xi through the us Mr Russel said he hoped the visit could be rescheduled as soon as possible.
Some Chinese scholars also want to reschedule the talks. Da Wei, director of the Center for International Security and Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, insisted that China wanted to stabilize its relationship with the United States. In addition to avoiding conflict, China also seeks normal trade relations and personnel exchanges, the professor said. He challenged Western analysts who believed that China was launching a charm offensive because it regretted its previous tough policies. Instead, in his telling, China is waiting for a Biden administration to be ready to engage once the U.S. feels stronger at home and more confident in its allies. Mr Da saw this year as a window of opportunity to negotiate ahead of the 2024 US election. He has cautious hopes for “reasonable” officials, business bosses and academics on both sides who are still seeking cooperation. But he sees little sign of the two countries effectively managing the balloon crisis. “Whether in China or usThere are still some people who work hard to stabilize bilateral relations, but they are a minority,” he worries.
The need for crisis management
The new Cold War will be different from the first Cold War. There was very little business between the United States and the Soviet Union. By comparison, two-way trade between the U.S. and China is about $2 billion a day. On the contrary, business is no longer a path to mutual understanding. On the one hand, U.S. politicians have become increasingly wary of Chinese investments in everything from high-tech to farmland. In 2020, Chinese-funded enterprises will only employ 120,000 workers in the United States, a sharp drop. Communist Party boss calls US suspicion “anti-China hysteria”. If Mr Xi wants to avoid a dangerous collision, he should heed Mr Biden’s call for a guardrail relationship. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Why Vladimir Putin Is Not a Pariah in China (February 2)
A new drama reveals the truth about China (January 26)
Taking a Slow Train in China (January 19)
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