Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

Popping China's Balloon

| Mar. 02, 2023

If the Sino-American relationship was a card game, one could say that America and its longstanding allies have been dealt a good hand, especially in light of China's growing economic, demographic, and political challenges. But even a good hand can lose if it is badly played.

When US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met in Bali last November, they agreed to hold high-level meetings to establish "guardrails" for the Sino-American strategic competition. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing to inaugurate that effort last month. But when China sent a surveillance balloon (visible to the naked eye) over American territory, Blinken’s visit was shot down even faster than the balloon.

Though this certainly was not the first time that China deployed a balloon in such a fashion, the poor timing was remarkable. Still, it might have been better if Blinken had followed through with his visit.

Yes, China claimed, dubiously, that the device was a weather balloon that had gone astray; but intelligence cover-ups are hardly unique to China. Last month's incident had echoes of 1960, when US President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were scheduled to meet to establish Cold War guardrails. But then the Soviets shot down an American spy plane that Eisenhower initially tried to dismiss as an errant weather flight. The summit was canceled, and real guardrails were not discussed until after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some analysts liken the current US-China relationship to the Cold War, since it, too, is becoming a prolonged strategic competition. But the analogy can be misleading. During the Cold War, there was almost no trade or talks between the US and the Soviet Union, nor was there ecological interdependence on issues like climate change or pandemics. The situation with China is almost the opposite. Any US strategy of containment will be limited by the fact that China is the major trading partner to far more countries than the US is.

But the fact that the Cold War analogy is counterproductive as a strategy does not rule out the possibility of a new cold war. We could still go down that path by accident. The appropriate historical analogy for the current moment therefore is not 1945 but 1914, when all the great powers expected a short Third Balkan War, only to end up with World War I, which lasted four years and destroyed four empires....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“Popping China's Balloon.” Project Syndicate, March 2, 2023.