It’s much more than hot air. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to China on Friday after the US military spotted a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the western United States. Beijing said the balloon was for civilian research and had gone far off course, but US President Joe Biden reportedly considered shooting it down because it was above a sensitive nuclear weapons site in Montana. The scuttled trip would have been Blinken’s first to China in two years as secretary of state, and reportedly would have included a sit-down with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. What happens to the world’s most important bilateral relationship now? Our experts, one of whom happened to be on the scene of the balloon brouhaha in Montana, are airing their thoughts.
1. What do you suspect is the real story behind the balloon?
US defense officials said the balloon has “limited additive value” beyond what the Chinese could gather from satellites. If this is true, then why did China take the risk? China must believe it provides additive value. In fact, it gave Beijing the ability to better map US intercontinental ballistic missile silos for future targeting and to gauge the US response. This action may suggest a shift in Chinese nuclear strategy to plan to target US nuclear weapons before they can be used, and it shows a brazen belief in Beijing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can violate US airspace without consequences.
—Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former nuclear-weapons expert in the US Department of Defense and intelligence community.
2. Why did the US take the dramatic step of canceling the trip?
The Chinese spy balloon drifting over Montana caught my attention—Montana is my home state, and I teach Chinese politics here through the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana—but the reality is there are a lot of other equally serious challenges to the fraught US-China relationship that made a Blinken visit to Beijing already very problematic.
Among those are disagreements between the two countries over human rights, China’s mercantilist trade practices, its economic support for Russia, and the future of Taiwan. But what is likely front and center right now is the ongoing battle over who will lead in the development of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductors. The news that Washington may impose new restrictions on sales of US technology to Huawei is just the latest salvo among many that the Biden administration has taken to block China’s technological rise, including most recently convincing the Netherlands and Japan to ban the sale to China of machinery to make advanced semiconductors.
—Dexter Tiff Roberts is a senior fellow at the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center and a former China bureau chief for Bloomberg Businessweek.
3. What are the consequences of canceling Blinken’s trip?
While no one expected significant outcomes from Blinken’s visit to China, it was viewed as an essential step in building on positive momentum in the bilateral relationship following the Biden-Xi meeting at the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in November and girding freshly restored communications channels against the already evident storm clouds ahead this year related to tech competition, economic policy, and Taiwan.
Just this week, we had China strongly warning US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy against visiting Taiwan this spring, US General Michael Minihan’s leaked memo telling troops to be ready for a fight over Taiwan in the next two years, and China’s furious if predictable reaction to new Czech President Petr Pavel’s call to Taiwan President Tsai ing-Wen upon his election—a first for a European Union head of state.
The postponement of the trip, while arguably justified, complicates the administration’s efforts to ensure the newly reinforced “floor” under the relationship holds for more than a few short months.
—David O. Shullman is the senior director of the Global China Hub and a former US intelligence official focused on East Asia.
4. Aside from canceling the trip, how else can the United States respond?
The United States should take action to limit the ability of China to gain sensitive information from the balloon. If shooting down the balloon is too dangerous, for example, the Pentagon may be able to use non-kinetic means to disable on-board equipment or shield sensitive sites. The United States should also make sure that the CCP pays a price. Blinken postponing his visit is a helpful first step.