How To Bring China, US ‘Balloon of Discord’ Back down to Earth



The balloon incident has been stirring up public opinion for the past half month. In his first speech on the series of high-altitude objects shot down recently, President Joe Biden said that three devices shot down over North America were unrelated to Chinese reconnaissance programs. However, the negative effects of these events on U.S.-China relations have been hard to dispel, and the first informal meeting, in Munich, Germany, between senior Chinese and American officials since those events evidently revealed that the balloon incident is not deflating any time soon.

In discussing the balloon incident between China and the U.S., it is necessary first to clarify that the use of high-altitude balloons for scientific research is an international practice, with countries such as France, the U.S. and Japan all having released many such scientific instruments. Second, according to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the U.S. should have adopted appropriate assistive measures with respect to unmanned Chinese airships, as they would have been considered “aircraft in distress.” International practice dictates that civil aircraft that stray into another country’s airspace usually be addressed through measures such as warnings, expulsions, accompanied flights and forced landings and that the parties achieve peaceful resolution through diplomatic channels.

US Releases ‘Balloons of Wrath,’ Creating New Cold War Atmosphere

The U.S. has turned what started out as a harmless airship flying accident into a diplomatic incident. In terms of safeguarding U.S.-China relations, the U.S. has clearly been a lousy receiver, making a mountain out of a molehill in dispatching F-22 fighter jets to meet a non-threatening Chinese balloon with air-to-air missiles and delaying Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China. Yet “receiving” in this manner has turned the U.S. into someone who serves up public opinion, as it has truly unleashed extremely destructive balloons of wrath when it comes to creating a new Cold War atmosphere.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement claiming that China’s “high-altitude surveillance balloon program has intruded into the airspace of over 40 countries across five continents,” and the media had a field day with that. The hype surrounding the balloon incident has amplified the “China threat theory” in the public mind, as balloons were commonly used by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to gather intelligence during the Cold War. The deliberate spy balloon sensationalism whipped up by the U.S. has given the public the impression that there is a resurgence of the Cold War, and this has both exacerbated anti-China sentiment within the U.S. and exaggerated the security threat posed by China globally.

Some analysts interpreted the visit of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Michael Chase to Taiwan on the Feb. 17 as a U.S. response to the burgeoning atmosphere of a “China threat” in the country. Actions such as his undoubtedly risk escalating the conflict between the U.S. and China, when what is really putting both countries to the test is how to bring the “danger balloons” down to earth.

The Normalization of Competitive Games – Test of US and Chinese Responses

The National Security Strategy report released last year indicates that the U.S. has finalized its basic strategy for competition with China, foreshadowing a bumpy road ahead for relations between the two. The normalization of competition and games with their occasional ups and downs will gradually constitute a pattern of interaction between the two countries, and seeking relative stability in the China-U.S. relationship throughout this process will be challenging for both parties.

On Feb. 18, Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi held an informal meeting in Munich with Secretary of State Blinken to assert China’s position on the balloon incident and demanded that the U.S. “change course” and redress its mistakes. In this commentator’s view, such a request demonstrates that China is keenly aware of the U.S.’ mudslinging intentions and can see how damaging this matter may be to the future. Therefore, the bottom line on putting the China-U.S. balloon incident to rest needs to be clearly articulated and the record set straight internationally, as we cannot permit the U.S. to smear China.

Relations between two great powers are like a game of table tennis. The direction the relationship takes is determined by whether we aim to safeguard it and maintain a stable rally, or whether we disregard the big picture and serve up a vicious smash shot.

Crisis Resolution Contingent on US Abiding by Tacit Agreements

China-U.S. relations are the most important and complex bilateral relationship in the world. In the 51 years since the Shanghai Communiqué was issued, that relationship has seen the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the Hainan Island incident of 2001, but it has also seen a number of turns for the better and light at the end of the tunnel. Although the path that China and the U.S. tread is not a smooth one, the countries have formed certain tacit understandings during the course of their relationship. One understanding is to draw a line in the sand, reject zero-sum thinking and avoid ideological influence, with both parties working hard to contain crises and avoid sparks in searching for powder kegs. A second understanding is to remain tactful, be mindful of the art of the struggle, work to resolve issues in the interests of both sides, to fight but not break and avoid absolutism. These are the tacit agreements that have helped to resolve crises.

Whether the balloon incident eventually gets a soft landing or not rests on whether the U.S. can continue to adhere to these tacit understandings. In the long run, the U.S. moving on from its current phase of provoking China in policy terms and fomenting a new cold war in public opinion, thus avoiding further escalation of the situation, does not just affect the relationship between it and China. It affects the future course of world affairs.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

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About Matthew McKay 110 Articles
Matthew is a British citizen who grew up and is based in Switzerland. He received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and an associate of both the UK's Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Swiss Association of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

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