The fallout from an alleged Chinese “spy” balloon that flew over the United States has cemented a near-bipartisan consensus in Washington on the need to “stand up” to Beijing as competition between the two countries intensifies.
While US officials stress they remain open to dialogue with China despite renewed tensions, many politicians in Washington are citing the incident to call for a tougher policy.
US President Joe Biden himself warned China not to threaten US sovereignty during his annual State of the Union address, which was seen by an estimated 23.4 million TV viewers on Tuesday night.
“The Biden administration has shown that it is very concerned about attacks, especially from the right, by Republican critics that they are too soft on China,” said Tobita Chow, director of Justice Is Global, a project that advocates for a more sustainable international economy.
“And because of that pressure coming from the right, I think we often see them leaning more in the direction of conflict politics.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a previously planned trip to Beijing due to the balloon incident, which the Biden administration called an “unacceptable” violation of US sovereignty.
The US military shot down the balloon on Saturday as it flew over the Atlantic Ocean, after days of debate and calls from Congress to bring it down.
In his State of the Union address, Biden said the US was not seeking confrontation in its competition with China, but warned that Washington would defend its interests against Beijing.
“As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country – and we have,” he said.
What do we know about the balloon?
Little is known publicly about the Chinese balloon or what it was doing in American airspace. Nevertheless, his presence caused a significant political uproar and produced countless news headlines and wall-to-wall coverage.
China initially expressed regret over the incident, describing the balloon as a civilian airship used for meteorological research that “veered far from its planned course”. Beijing later condemned the US strike that downed the plane.
But the Pentagon insisted it was a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”, although US defense officials said the balloon posed no “military or physical threat”.
Still, some Republican lawmakers continued to describe the plane as a national security risk.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton blasted the Biden administration for allowing the balloon to fly over the continental US for days before bringing it down.
Cotton said Fox News earlier this week he considered delaying Biden’s response “dangerous for the American people.” He also accused the administration of trying to save Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which he described as “already ill-advised.”
US officials have previously said that if the balloon descends above the ground, falling debris could “potentially cause injury or death to civilians or significant property damage”.
Christopher Heurlin, an associate professor of government and Asian studies at Bowdoin College in the US state of Maine, said the balloon may not have posed a direct threat to Americans, but it caused “shock” in the country.
“We in the United States like to think that we live in North America and that we’re oceans away from any kind of competition — and in that sense, we’re not really vulnerable,” Heurlin told Al Jazeera.
“Whereas I think a spy balloon flying overhead creates a kind of visceral sense of vulnerability in the collective psyche.”
As for Blinken’s trip, Heurlin said “political reasons” played a role in the decision to postpone it.
“I’m not sure politically Biden would be able to get away with sending Secretary of State Blinken to China under these circumstances,” he told Al Jazeera.
Chow, director of Justice Is Global, agreed that “panic” over the balloons likely led to the postponement of the visit.
“I think the Biden administration has correctly assessed that the balloon is not that big of a deal,” Chow told Al Jazeera. “But they felt overwhelmed by this wave of media coverage and this extreme insanity from the right.”
How we got here
The balloon incident comes against a backdrop of growing hostility between Washington and Beijing.
Last year, the White House released a national security strategy that described China as the “most consequential geopolitical challenge” for the US. The Pentagon has also prioritized competing with Beijing in its defense strategy.
Both assessments focused primarily on China rather than Russia, despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted global supply chains for vital goods such as food and energy and led to the most intense violence in Europe since World War II.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over a number of points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, Chinese claims in the South China Sea and continued US pressure against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US is also warning China not to come to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
So how did we get here?
As Washington’s so-called “war on terror” — launched after the 9/11 attacks — began to wind down, the US has focused on competing with China, whose economic power and pressure for global influence are growing.
Chow said the root of the tension is the “neoliberal globalization of free trade.” That economic framework, he explained, has been experiencing deeper systemic problems since the financial crisis of 2008 and has led to “cut-throat competition, which then became fertile ground for dangerous nationalist politics.”
Professor Heurlin connected the current situation between the two countries with the economy. He said that with the loss of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing, the anger of many in the US has shifted to China.
He added that since the rise of President Xi Jinping in 2012, Beijing has pursued an assertive foreign policy that includes “loudly defending China’s interests.”
“It’s something they were really doing to attract Chinese nationalists at home,” Heurlin told Al Jazeera.
“I think this is something that has been going on for some time on both sides. And then, especially when Donald Trump comes into the US presidency and starts a trade war with China, that’s when the relationship really starts to go down.”
Ultimately, Heurlin said, the U.S. government’s goal is to “maintain its status quo position as the most militarily and economically powerful country in the world.”
What’s next for US-China relations?
Despite deteriorating relations, officials of both countries continue to call for cooperation in solving common global challenges — namely the fight against climate change and the COVID pandemic — and warn of conflicts.
But for the foreseeable future, tensions show no sign of abating.
“What we should anticipate is that the conflict between the US and China will continue to build and escalate over time,” Chow said. “And if things don’t change, then yes, this is going to be a long-term major power conflict that will have huge consequences for people in the US and China and around the world.”
Heurlin echoed that prediction, but said he hoped that with China ending its “zero COVID” policy, more people-to-people interactions between American and Chinese citizens would soften public opinion in both countries.
“It’s getting harder and harder to manage the US-China relationship from the perspective of Beijing and Washington, and I don’t think there’s really any magic solution,” he said.