Trial Balloon: Balancing Multiple Goals in U.S.-China Relations

The notion that a balloon slowly floating across the continental United States at 60,000 feet would dominate the headlines and become an international incident of the highest order almost seems laughable on first glance. U.S.-China relations face much larger challenges, including the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait, an ongoing war in Europe that is claiming countless lives and could continue to spread, and the dangers from not working together to address climate change and prevent future pandemics. But despite a kneejerk reaction to dismiss the balloon incident as nothing but an opportunity for venting hot air, in reality, this case is a test of the United States’ ability to implement a thoughtful foreign policy vis-à-vis its greatest strategic challenge.

Figuring out how to properly respond to the presence of the balloon over U.S. territory requires the weighing of two equally important principles. The first is avoiding moral hazard and not letting China escape penalty and opprobrium for misbehavior that threatens the United States’ national security. Claims that this was a privately-owned weather balloon that veered off course do not hold water. And the downplaying of this as a cute but curious piece of mylar overlooks the fact that the vessel’s high-tech equipment and navigation ability gave it distinctive intelligence-gathering value, and that it is part of a larger fleet of surveillance balloons crisscrossing the globe within the air space of other countries. Once the United States identified the balloon as part of a larger intelligence program, minimizing this becomes impossible, as that would teach Beijing that it could engage in such behavior without any costs. Calling Beijing out, working with other countries whose sovereignty has been or could be violated, and delaying Secretary Blinken’s visit to Beijing, serves this larger purpose.

Yet there is a second equally important principle—maintaining communication with other major powers—that suggests the value of engaging in regular, extensive, and wide-ranging dialogue with China on a full range of economic, political, and security issues, particularly on matters where there is pointed and deep disagreement.

Since 2017 the level of interaction between Washington and Beijing has fallen substantially, and since the pandemic communication has been, to put it politely, minimalist. Aside from occasional meetings involving the secretary of state or national security advisor, the two governments are barely on speaking terms. (A brief coffee at Davos does not count.) The Trump administration dropped the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue because it saw wide-ranging consultations as a gift that permitted Beijing to avoid making substantive concessions. When the negotiations over trade and intellectual property rights began in 2018, Trump limited interaction between a small number of officials so that China could not exploit cracks within the administration. For much of its first two years, the Biden administration seemed similarly concerned that engaging in extensive talks is both a waste of time and a concession that gives Beijing leverage to demand other things it wants in exchange for just sitting down. But last summer’s Taiwan crisis, generated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit and China’s reaction, apparently helped change the administration’s mind in favor of expanding dialogue in order to “build guardrails” and avoid an outright military conflict.

Moreover, multiple administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo have repeatedly said that the administration will emphasize investing in the United States’ own capabilities, aligning with allies, and competing vigorously with China, but that it will also remain open to constructive communication and cooperation where possible. In this week’s State of the Union address, President Biden reaffirmed this approach, including working “with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.” Managing our differences and cooperating both require greater communication.

The instincts behind such a balanced approach are correct and should not now be rejected because of China’s active intelligence activity. Quite the contrary, Chinese intelligence-gathering and violation of U.S. sovereignty—and developing mechanisms to avoid future crises on this and other spheres—should be the first topic in meetings between our officials.

In short, the administration was right to postpone the meeting, but unless there is a dramatic new revelation, it should quickly seek to reschedule Blinken’s visit by the end of February. The window to expand communication began to open last fall, facilitated by Xi and Biden’s improved political fortunes (Xi’s reappointment at the 20th Party Congress and the Democratic Party’s better than expected showing in the midterms), Biden and Xi’s meeting in Bali, the sudden ending of Xi’s zero-Covid policy, and China’s efforts to reassure skeptics at home and abroad.

The window to get started, though, may close soon. In the first half of March, China will hold its annual National People’s Congress (NPC) legislative session, which will consume the full attention of China’s political system. Not only will the leadership be focused on explaining how they are going to revive the economy to the 3,000-or-so gathered deputies, the NPC will appoint an entire new set of cabinet ministers, potentially make some adjustments to the government’s bureaucratic structure, and consider several new draft laws. U.S.-China relations and Taiwan will not be official topics of the NPC, but one should expect some rhetorical flourishes about both. Following the NPC, the world’s attention may turn to a potential visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. A Blinken visit in advance of these developments gives diplomacy a greater chance to help stabilize the relationship and either avoid a crisis altogether or manage it more effectively.

There is no time to waste, as the agenda where more intensive diplomacy is needed is growing longer: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s provocations, avoiding a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, developing and implementing mechanisms for crisis management, China’s growing nuclear stockpile, human rights, the intersection of commerce and national security, countering climate change, and promoting global public health, to name a few. Blinken’s visit needs to be the start of upward sloping curve of diplomatic activity that will spread to other members of the cabinet and then to their deputies and mid-level staff. In addition, another important agenda item is for the two governments to facilitate the resumption of normal people-to-people ties—students, scholars, business executives, tourists, and families—which will also be a critical component to building guardrails for the relationship.

Just as there will certainly be another pandemic and growing tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in the future, there will also be other trials and tribulations akin to this balloon incident. The United States needs to be prepared to handle all kinds of challenges and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. That requires an ability to simultaneously spotlight Chinese misdeeds and sit across from them at the negotiating table.

Scott Kennedy is senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics