The balloon episode and the ensuing UFO drama have captured America’s attention perhaps because it’s such a caricature of the new Cold War we’re barreling toward.
The image of a fighter jet shooting down a giant balloon over the East Coast, the first kill of the F-22: It would be comical if it hadn’t been quickly used in hawkish posturing around China that, in turn, further strained the relationship with a nuclear power. Republicans tapped into the fears surrounding China’s rising power to attack President Joe Biden. Secretary of State Tony Blinken canceled a previously planned trip to Beijing. China, meanwhile, hasn’t been taking America’s calls.
Two weeks after we all started googling UFOs, Biden delivered a surprise speech about the balloon. He said the US seeks “competition not conflict with China. We’re not looking for a new Cold War.” He echoed a message conveyed in the State of the Union and his first in-person meeting with Xi as president.
The attempt at de-escalation is reassuring. But I wished he would have stated more clearly that the balloon episode shouldn’t mark a turning point in US-China relations. The takeaway from leading China experts I’ve heard from this week is that war with China is not inevitable, even if tensions feel as high as ever. But more needs to be done now to put guard rails on the fraught relationship between the two countries so that the next unidentified flying object doesn’t lead to unintended conflict.
It’s a good sign that Biden expressed his willingness to speak with Xi to deconflict, but the regular channels of communication between the two countries are too limited; the framework of competition could get so overheated that it leads to conflict.
“We haven’t identified anything that would anchor the relationship and provide it with some form or way to deal with various different difficult issues that we might face,” China analyst Bonny Lin told members of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I am worried about where the state of the relationship is, but I guess I wouldn’t quite say we’re at a crisis point yet.”
Why war with China is not inevitable
We’re still learning about the adrift balloon and errant UFOs. Biden said they were likely “tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions,” and got caught up in the US’s heightened attention to the skies.
Importantly, a number of China experts say this moment doesn’t have to be a turning point in relations between Washington and Beijing.
For one, everyone knows that nations spy on other nations. And the Washington Post’s reporting suggests that this balloon might have just gotten blown off course. Above all, China experts seem unfazed because of the brazen examples of China’s espionage on American companies and universities over the years.
The US remains the unrivaled military power in the world. The balloon technologies now being discussed with apprehension on TV are almost certainly already in the hands of the American military. While US weapons and military personnel are one way to deter the prospect of China aggression, an accelerated arms race and military buildups can lead to a risky situation.
Still, the balloon incursion may have been inevitable in the long run. Balloons are useful, it turns out, and have a lot of technological advantages: They can hover over certain areas for a long period, and since they are not as high as satellites, can gather ultra-detailed information — and the sky is full of them.
US intelligence agencies are increasingly focused on the technological advances that such aerial objects provide. Edward Ge is the CEO of the balloon startup Stratodyne that has received funding from the US military and intelligence agencies. “The defense industry has always been interested in balloons,” he told me, “using balloons in everything from border-security use cases to monitoring sites in Iraq like forward operating posts, and even surveillance over cities as well.”
Conflict isn’t inevitable. But cooperation seems scant, too.
While the balloon itself shouldn’t lead to conflict, there’s a real risk that seeing everything through the prism of conflict with China could very well lead to it.
The intense anxiety on cable news around the balloon resonates because there are serious challenges around China’s rapid development of technologies. “China is very much advancing in the space domain,” says Yool Kim, a space policy expert at the Rand Corporation. “This is yet another means for them to try to project power and exploit one of these less-governed domains.”
The biggest threat might be unintended consequences and accidental escalation. “It seemed like there was a disconnect between the military’s assessment and how the American populace reacted,” Adam Chitwood, a retired Air Force officer who has worked extensively in Asia, told me. “Tit-for-tat type of things don’t really get anyone very far.”
Meanwhile, a new constituency has emerged that is preparing for conflict with China with knock-on effects throughout Washington and the world. Venture investments in military tech have jumped from $100 million in 2020 to more than $7 billion. Silicon Valley appears to be readying for war with China. “Geopolitical events,” as one venture capitalist euphemistically put it in December, have added urgency to such investments. It’s why one prominent Washington consulting firm that focuses on national security has expanded its China practice. Leading voices who represent the military contracting industry are using the prospect of a war with China as impetus for investing more in US weapons. (We know that many of those who inflate the China threat on TV also hold jobs in industries like military contracting that would benefit from threat inflation.)
“Rivalry empowers fringe, extremist, paranoiac reactionaries on all sides. It benefits grifters, it benefits ethno-nationalists, it benefits militarists. It doesn’t benefit democracy,” says scholar Van Jackson, the author of Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace. “We’re just on a poisonous track.”
And attempts at cooperation are few and far between.
When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke at length this week at the Brookings Institution on the US approach to China, she emphasized the pillars of a strategy that consist of “align, invest, compete” in response to China’s rise. On the panel, analyst Patricia Kim posed a smart question to the deputy secretary: “What does success look like? How do we know when we’ve succeeded in this competition with China?”
In response, Sherman emphasized the importance of beating out China on advanced technologies and in the cyber realm by building up US supply chains and protecting rare-earth minerals. The problem is, there are plenty of elements of this policy that just seem downright Cold War-ish. Sherman noted that the State Department, for example, established a new unit in December called China House, whose name is a throwback to another era and evokes the title of a book by legendary spy novelist John Le Carre.
Sherman’s long and unwieldy answer indeed suggested that the US is so locked into a framework of rivalry with China that it can’t measure success in terms of cooperation.
Experts can hardly name any current avenues of cooperation with China. For its part, China appears uninterested in cooperation, including on controlling the number of nuclear weapons in the world.
Sherman, when speaking at Brookings, mentioned “issues that demand our collaboration, issues like climate, food security, counter-narcotics, global health, and more,” but then in the next sentence condemned China’s repressive and aggressive policies. It suggested just how far off those collaborations might be.
Asked later in the talk to detail what cooperation looks like, she mostly focused on stemming the import of fentanyl into the US from China. Yes, there were more than 100,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in America in 2022, and Chinese-sourced materials remain a key part of the supply chain for trafficked fentanyl, according to a 2022 Congressional Research Service report. But the comment could also be interpreted as a right-wing dog whistle. Trump had accused Xi of not doing enough to stop the drug’s passage into the US, and it has become a regular outlandish talking point of people like Steve Bannon.
Which is to say: It’s not exactly the kind of diplomatic flourish that’s going to lower the temperature at this moment.