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The Economist
The Economist

The Sino-American rivalry needs guardrails to contain small incidents

Editor’s note (February 4th 2023): After this piece was published America shot down the Chinese balloon that had been flying over the country. The piece has been updated to reflect this development.

“THERE NEED not be a new cold war,” Joe Biden told Xi Jinping when the pair met in Bali in November. Thus began a rare few months of detente in Sino-American relations. In January, when they connected in Zurich, the two countries’ senior economic officials spoke of enhanced communication and co-operation. A visit to Beijing by Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, planned for February 5th and 6th, was meant to consolidate progress. Then a Chinese balloon floated over America.

It was no ordinary inflatable. The balloon was in the lower stratosphere, around 18,000 metres up, and equipped with solar panels. It was much bigger than those typically used for meteorological research, yet China claimed this was its main purpose, and that the balloon simply wandered off course. The Pentagon—and the world—wasn’t buying it. America called it a surveillance balloon and shot it down over the Atlantic on February 4th. Mr Blinken’s bridge-building trip is off—at least for now.

The balloon should not have been in American airspace. (Nor, as things stand at the moment, should another balloon be in Latin American airspace.) Mr Blinken was right to postpone his visit. And the Biden administration is right to protest against China’s provocation. America had the right to shoot down the balloon, which, according to the Pentagon, was still in American airspace. However, the incident needs to be seen in the broader context of relations between the world’s two most powerful countries.

That China spies on America, and vice versa, is no secret. The intelligence-gathering value of the balloon was limited, as even the Pentagon concedes. This matters, because when a rivalry grows as intense as that between America and China, small incidents risk relations spiralling out of control. To prevent that, China and America need a way to insulate their relationship from inevitable mishaps and miscalculations—and, indeed, Chinese clumsiness.

The need for such restraint is all the more urgent given that factions in both countries will seize on incidents such as this as a chance to demonstrate their patriotic credentials. Start in Washington, where the balloon was met with outrage. “It is a threat to American sovereignty, and it is a threat to the Midwest—in places like those that I live in,” said Mike Gallagher, the Republican head of the House’s new bipartisan China Select Committee. “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!” wrote Donald Trump, the former president, echoing a demand made by many Republicans. (Experts said that destroying the balloon over land risked showering lethal debris on people.)

Democrats, too, are angry. Jon Tester, a senator from Montana, called the balloon a “clear threat” to national security. “I’m demanding answers from the Biden administration.” Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat on the China Select Committee, assented to a statement that painted the balloon incursion as evidence that China’s recent diplomatic outreach did not represent a substantive change in policy. Such is the hostility directed at China that Mr Biden has little room for manoeuvre.

The political atmosphere in China is no less frenzied. The government has expressed regret about the balloon’s “unintended” entry into American airspace, which it says was caused by “force majeure”. That is about as close as China will come to admitting it has blundered. It was, after all, Mr Xi who aimed to lower tensions with the West, just as he sought to reassure foreign businesses alarmed by his recent policies that China is a good place to invest. So much for all that.

Yet even apologetic officials exude animosity. While China’s foreign ministry expressed regret, the country’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, told Mr Blinken that China will “not accept any groundless conjecture or hype”, according to a ministry description of their phone call. Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s media outlets are churning out commentaries blaming America for ratcheting up tensions by, for example, expanding its military presence in the Philippines. Along with a steady diet of “Wolf Warrior”-like films, this has led to an increasingly unrealistic sense of supremacy among Chinese nationalists. It is a group Mr Xi has nurtured, and may now find difficult to manage.

With luck the balloon incident will not escalate. But something else like it could. It is in the interests of everyone that the competition between China and America is calibrated—to the extent that it can be. If Messrs Biden and Xi do not want relations to be determined by accidents, errors and misunderstandings, they need to find better ways to communicate.

Long before the balloon crossed into America’s airspace, there had been discussion of new mechanisms to mitigate risks during crises. The Biden administration has talked explicitly about the need for “guardrails”, such as opening direct communication lines between the two sides’ military leaders and establishing protocols for their ships and planes to interact safely. China has been more cautious, viewing any agreements as an attempt to limit its military options.

Yet such agreements helped contain hostility in the cold war. Tension in the Sino-American relationship is not as great as it was in the Soviet-American one. But it took a missile crisis before officials in Washington and Moscow worked out effective ways to manage the risks. Let it be a balloon, rather than a nuclear stand-off, that gets America and China working on how to talk to each other.

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