Slamming The Door On Diplomacy Over Surveillance Balloon Is Reckless, Not Resolute – OpEd


By Alec Caruana*

The frenzy over a Chinese surveillance balloon which traversed American airspace during the past few days is characteristically stirring up ill-conceived and dangerous ideas in Washington. While the threat of espionage ought to be addressed thoughtfully and comprehensively, hasty saber-rattling and clamor for further disengagement with China over this incident is a miscalculation that could greatly imperil our military encounters across the Pacific.

Though the precise purpose of the balloon remains unclear, analysts and the Pentagon gave assurances that this mechanism of Chinese “intelligence gathering” had been observed before under previous administrations, posed no urgent threat, and was of relatively limited intelligence value. Nevertheless, its ‘gimmicky’ and theatrical nature negatively framed the White House’s options in favor of short-term remedies over long-term security.

The most unfortunate immediate consequence of the balloon’s discovery is the postponement of a long-planned trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing. This visit by a Secretary of State to China would have been the first of its kind since 2018, and an opportune moment to put Sino-American relations back on track after a rocky few months. While Blinken reiterated Friday that “the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication,” he ultimately concluded that “it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time.” Moments of heightened tensions, however, are precisely the time that powers must maintain open, high-level communication lest accidents and embarrassments spiral out of control into full-blown conflict.

Nowhere can this exigency be more clearly illustrated than in encounters between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in the South China Sea. After former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan last August, Beijing suspended a slew of high-level and operator-level talks between the U.S. and Chinese militaries and has since rebuffed attempts by Washington to rebuild these mechanisms until it walks back its increasingly supportive attitude towards Taiwan. 

Following the meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November, however, the two powers took steps towards reconciliation. Later that month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, reversing the months-long drought in high-level military exchanges. But relations began to sour in December after the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 which approved $10 billion in arms sales to Taiwan

These frustrated negotiations were further complicated on December 21 by a close encounter in the South China Sea where an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane was intercepted and shadowed by a Chinese J-11 fighter jet. While the U.S. and China traded barbs over whether the American plane took “unsafe…evasive maneuvers” when confronted, the situation did not escalate beyond agitated press releases, and the door to resume military-to-military dialogue remained open.

However, in a reportedly delayed reaction to this “unsafe” encounter, Secretary Austin was snubbed by his Chinese counterpart for a proposed phone call on January 9 and no further communications were successfully made throughout the first month of this year. Perhaps contributing to Beijing’s reticence was the arrival of the six-vessel (and nine-air squadron) strong Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the Philippines on January 3 and a transit through the Taiwan Strait by one of the CSG’s destroyer vessels on January 5. Much to Beijing’s chagrin, the Nimitz CSG officially began conducting operations in the South China Sea on January 12. 

After a few months of contentious, yet, eager interactions, Blinken’s slated visit to Beijing this week was expected to build on the Biden-Xi meeting and, among other issues, melt the freeze creeping over Sino-American military exchanges. However, the winds shifted dramatically—rather than send Blinken to Beijing, the Biden administration opted to shoot down the Chinese observation balloon in a show of force after extricating itself from its diplomatic commitment. This reaction came in spite of Beijing’s relatively conciliatory initial response to the incident where they argued that the balloon “deviated far from its planned course” and that “the Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.” Beijing’s contrition has since hardened into indignation with the Foreign Ministry describing the vessel’s downing on Saturday as “a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” and lodging a formal protest with the U.S. embassy on Monday over Washington’s “indiscriminate use of military force.” 

Given that event is a loss of face for Beijing however you slice it, the White House’s reproving response could be a prudent maneuver intended to exact greater concessions from China as a precondition for comprehensive re-engagement. More likely, however, is that this diplomatic disengagement is intended to signal U.S. resolve against China as a means to deter Beijing from further transgressions and appease Biden’s immediate critics in Congress and the media. 

This oversensitivity to hawkish pressure is a mistake that could hinder U.S. national security in the long term. Imagine the potential for escalation in a casualty-generating incident akin to that of December 21, but absent any will or mechanism on either side to leave the door to diplomacy open. In the 2001 Hainan Island incident we can observe an example of a mishap that could realistically occur again as risky operations continue unabated, and particularly concerning is how unrealistic its blueprint for de-escalation appears when viewed through a contemporary lens. In this case, a U.S. spy plane collided with a PLA Navy jet off China’s southern coast resulting in the presumed death of the Chinese pilot and the ten-day detention of the U.S. crew. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and a deliberately ambiguous statement was agreed to allowing both nations to restore normalcy to their relationship. 

It is hard to believe that the U.S. and China of today could manage a volatile episode of this magnitude with the same poise. With Washington’s approach to Taiwan placing a low ceiling on the potential of diplomacy from the Chinese perspective, dangerous alternative proposals have emerged. A recent article by a retired Senior Colonel in the PLA argues that military encounters in the South China Sea may only be risk-free after China reaches military parity with the U.S. as short-term measures—such as Chinese reciprocal operations in American waters, Chinese acquiescence to innocent passage of its territorial seas, and resumption of military-to-military dialogues on pre-Pelosi visit terms—are unlikely. 

The U.S. cannot afford to hem China into exclusively military remedies to perceived encroachments in its near-abroad when the risks of such an approach are so massive. While uni- and multilateral military deterrence will continue to be an element of American policy towards China—as evidenced by the recent expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Philippines—the proliferation of armed force without mutual guardrails and risk-mitigating diplomatic channels puts the increasingly volatile U.S.-China relationship on a precarious hair trigger. Continued communication is the most difficult and, indeed, imperative, in episodes of justifiable enmity. If the Biden administration truly wishes to pursue peace through strength, it should read Beijing’s signals for what they are and take care not to slam the door on an embarrassed rival over something so trivial in the grand scheme of espionage.

*About the author: Alec Caruana is a Research Assistant Intern at ICAS

Source: This article was published by ICAS


The Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS) is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to strengthening the understanding of U.S.-China relations through expert analysis and practical policy solutions.

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