Does China’s Spy Balloon Mean We’re in a New Cold War?

Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock

Relations between the U.S. and China were already at a nadir before American fighter jets shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had meandered across the Lower 48 earlier this month. (Since then, the U.S. has taken down three other objects, two over American airspace and one over Canada, all unidentified.) In Washington, there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that China is an international menace to the rest of the world, from its trade practices to its crackdowns in Hong Kong to its aggressive stance toward Taiwan. China, for its part, believes that American arrogance is unfairly constraining its rightful enshrinement as a superpower. With this level of bad blood, some experts worry about a cycle of unchecked escalation. One of them is Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China. Daly is a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing, has acted as a Chinese interpreter for high-level statesmen including Jimmy Carter, and produced a Chinese-language version of Sesame Street. I spoke with him about why we’re in a new Cold War, and what the U.S. misunderstands about China’s global ambitions.

The U.S. believes that the balloon it shot down last week is part of a larger surveillance fleet that patrols countries around the world, from Asia to South America. What does it say about China’s leadership that it would use such a brazen and obvious method to spy on adversaries?
The United States has made clear that even before the balloon was shot down, we did fly-bys with surveillance planes, which were able to get a really good look at the array that hung below that balloon. Based on the solar cells they saw there and the equipment, they’re quite certain of the kinds of collection capacity this balloon has, and that it’s not just meteorological. Presumably, as we analyze the stuff we’ve hauled out of the Atlantic Ocean, that will be affirmed. And not only are we saying that China has this spy-balloon capacity, we’re briefing other countries extensively about it. We want to make sure that those countries are warned, but also that China is thickly tarred with this brush. This comes at a very good time for the United States because it helps to reaffirm and to lend real credence to our domestic narrative and our international narrative that China is a bad player, an authoritarian state.

So why would China be so brazen? There are a couple of reasons. One is that we’re pretty brazen. China sees us interfering in internal affairs around the world, carrying out influence operations — there was the hacking revealed in the Snowden files, which to some degree was forgotten here in the United States because we get bored with news and move past it. It’s not forgotten in the rest of the world. It’s a bomb that continues to go off, which for much of the world, and certainly for those who oppose us at all, means that we never have the moral high ground in this particular department. This balloon, which we’ve said really can’t collect anything new, is a fleabite compared to what Snowden revealed we were doing. And that was a long time ago; presumably we’ve done more since. So America as a superpower has been quite brazen, and it has paid very little cost for that. Now it’s China’s turn. It’s part of that club, and it’s going to collect what it thinks it needs to collect in its own righteous self-interest. We don’t go around the globe apologetically explaining why we’ve been surveilling other countries, and we shouldn’t expect China to either.

So this is just another sign that China has joined the superpower club. 
Yeah. One of the macro-narratives is that China is learning to be a superpower, and it has the power, but it’s really not so super at using it. It tends to be clubfooted and to make big, avoidable mistakes. And it’s trying to be a global superpower that does interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and does influence the global system, while still clinging to its old catechism that “we are but a poor developing country, and we never interfere in other nations’ affairs, and we are only about development, not spreading an ideology.” Its people have been raised on that, on the notion that China is always the victim, and it hasn’t figured out how to reconcile that very deeply rooted set of views with what China is in fact doing all around the world.

China loves to say it doesn’t interfere. What it can’t understand or accept is that development is interference — development of the sort they’re providing through their Belt and Road initiative. It involves elite capture, picking winners. It involves, in many cases, bribes to supporting parties and uprooting Indigenous peoples. It threatens traditions, it changes societies. China is allergic to the notion that there may be moral difficulty with any of its actions as a superpower. So they’re going from deep, deep victim culture to victor mentality, and they’re trying both simultaneously right now, which is why you sometimes see them staggering in their public relations, as with the spy-balloon incident.

Some people have proclaimed that the U.S. and China are now in a Cold War, or that they have been for some time. Is this a useful framework?
It is a Cold War, but it’s not the Cold War. There are a number of major differences. A lot of Americans reject the Cold War analogy, for, I think, three reasons. One is that during the first Cold War, the Soviet Union was not a comprehensive power, not a pure competitor of the United States. It was just a military power. China is a pure competitor. So calling this a Cold War triggers the old Cold War responses in Washington, which are not going to be adequate to the China challenge. That’s a legitimate critique. Another is that we weren’t economically integrated with the Soviet Union, but we’re deeply economically integrated with China. Trump’s trade war failed, and our imports and exports continue to go up. How do we have a trade war with a country we’re so integrated with? Again, a fair question. The third reason no one wants to call this a Cold War is that it’s depressing as hell. We thought we were better than this, we thought we’d moved past it. We think declaring a Cold War is retrograde, that it casts us as the bad guy. So we’re hesitant to use that kind of language.

These are good objections to calling it a Cold War, but I think that they fail in the face of reality. This Cold War is going to be fought, I believe, primarily in the economic and technological realms. And the prize being fought for is really a maximal control of international systems, standards, and practices. That includes things like security architectures, trade and financial regimes, regulatory regimes for technologies, international laws and norms, and the values that undermine them. China wants more influence — it wants to make the world safe for China. And this is what a lot of American politicians, in my view, get wrong. They speak as though China’s goal is to eat our lunch or destroy us, or destroy our way of life. This is false.

An example of that – last week, Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand, not really known as a hawk, said: “Xi is a very authoritarian ruler, and he has bent on a World War, and the investments he has made over the past 15 years have been designed solely to defeat America in a World War.” 
China doesn’t care about our way of life — it cares about its way of life. It is entirely self-interested and self-reifying. It’s the world’s biggest self-licking ice-cream cone. It doesn’t see beyond that China lens. And of course, as a big, wealthy country, China has a lot of legitimate needs that we should acknowledge and respect. It has to import food, energy, and raw materials. It must have access to global markets and global ideas and global capital flows. Any Chinese government, even a liberal Democratic hypothetical one, would need to have those things. Any Chinese government would want to strengthen its defensive perimeter and push that perimeter outwards. Any Chinese government would use its wealth to build political influence. And what China wants to do through its foreign policy is to build global deference through dependence, to use its wealth, access to China’s markets, Chinese lending, Chinese investments to get deference, to get other countries not to stand in the way of China getting all the things I just mentioned.

But that’s it. They don’t want to conquer the world, okay? This is not the Third Reich. This is not the Soviet Union. China does not care about the world enough to want to rule it. They want what they want for China itself. And that is sufficiently concerning for us because of the impact they’ll have on the global system. But it’s very different from facing a rival that really seeks our destruction.

Well, that’s a relief. 
It is true that many of the military reforms China has carried out are premised on a possible conflict with the United States. But that doesn’t mean they’re bent on world war. We’re the ones who invented this rhetoric of “peace through strength,” right? “If you want peace, prepare for war,” “arsenals of democracy,” and all this other self-congratulatory kind of rhetoric. From the CCP’s point of view, the United States does threaten China’s core interests, particularly with regards to Taiwan, but also within the other islands. You can say that China’s claims to all these territories are illegitimate for various reasons, but the claims are nevertheless sincere and long-standing. We’ve known about all of this for decades. It’s just that now, China has the strength to assert those long-standing claims. And what it finds when it thinks about doing that is that the United States stands firmly in its way, right on its doorstep. China is really taking a page out of America’s book: if you don’t want to fight with the United States, you also have to be prepared to fight and give the United States pause before it makes a move on what you see, rightly or wrongly, as your sovereign territory.

In the past, great powers have sleep walked their way into war despite neither side really wanting it. The political scientist, Jessica Chen Weiss has become well known in foreign-policy circles for arguing against, as she puts it, an “action-reaction spiral” that may lead to sort of unintended conflict beyond where we’re already going.
What prevents you from sleepwalking into war is somebody whooping you upside the head with a two-by-four. That’s what the Cuban Missile Crisis did. And that’s what calling this a Cold War now would do. It creates that sense of urgency, and it makes very clear what the stakes are. This isn’t just about managing a difficult relationship, though we have to do that too. This is about not going to war. And as soon as you frame it that way, the next question that you must ask is, how do we create conditions that are conducive to peace? Which is a question you will hear asked almost nowhere in Beijing or Washington right now. As soon as you ask that question, that becomes your organizing principle. Right now, the organizing principle is these are communist bastard assholes and we need to kick them in the head. It needs to be: How do we create conditions that are conducive to peace?

So you’re saying the label might actually help take down the temperature.
A Cold War is a play for time. Time for change, time for China to change, for the United States to change and for the global environment to change. It involves maximizing exchanges, even while we recognize that we’re in a dire competition. That’s why it’s an advantage, calling this a Cold War. The goal is then to keep it cold. I very much admire Jessica Chan Weiss’s attempts to stand up in the midst of a very strong current that’s rushing toward a more and more contentious relationship and put her hand up and say, “Can we stop and think about what we’re doing here?”

This is what I see Jessica’s project as, and I strongly support it, but it’s much more than action/reaction. That makes it sound like a sort of a childish schoolyard bickering that has its own dynamic, but that ultimately isn’t about anything. This is about a lot. These two countries face a genuine security dilemma. They have fundamentally different values, different ideas about regional order, very different ideas about world and international order. Their model of human flourishing is different; the idea about the dignity and the role and the primacy of the individual are different. So this U.S.-China Cold War is primarily structural, historical, and inevitable. So it’s more than action/reaction. There are core national interests involved here.

Joe Biden has been notably more aggressive about the prospect of defending Taiwan than his predecessors have, making comments that go beyond the official U.S. posture of “strategic ambiguity.” Nancy Pelosi visited the island last year, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy might be next. How do you view those moves in terms of the escalatory cycle you want to avoid?
Over the past decade, the United States and China have both been very provocative relative to Taiwan. I do not believe that Taiwan itself has been very provocative — I think President Tsai Ing-wen has been very impressive, tightrope-walking without a net while juggling on a unicycle — I have tremendous admiration for what she’s achieved. But China was determined from the outset to have her fail. They demonized Taiwan, and they’ve been increasingly militarily threatening to Taiwan. The United States meanwhile, really has changed its practice under what we call our One China policy. We deny that we’ve changed it, but that’s not true. We are speaking now as if the one China policy is nothing but, and has never been anything but, the technical fact that we recognize Beijing instead of Taipei as the government of all of China.

But it was far more than that. A pillar of the One China policy has been that the United States was neutral as to the ultimate disposition of the question of Taiwan. The United States had no objection to Taiwan and China becoming part of a common entity, as long as it happened peacefully and in accordance with the desires of the people of Taiwan. We’ve abandoned that neutrality. We have begun to speak of Taiwan as a strategic asset of ours in competition with China. Ely Ratner, of the Defense Department, said this in congressional testimony — that China, because of its nature, should not be allowed to control Taiwan. That violates the One China policy.

I don’t think that’s commonly understood.
Now, it is true that the One China policy, and all these other agreements, are badly outdated. The original Shanghai Communiqué said the United States acknowledges that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of it. That clause is very important to China. We would never say it today for the very good reason that it is not true. The people of Taiwan now identify as Taiwanese. They want to be a separate country. They don’t want to reclaim or be part of China. So it’s amazing that this always ambiguous and frustrating set of agreements has lasted as long as it has. There needs to be changes, but we should also be honest that we have changed the One China policy and that our rhetoric is extremely ignorant of our own history.

I think it was Nancy Pelosi, in connection with her trip to Taiwan to see Tsai Ing-wen, who talked about the original Shanghai Communiqué and other agreements as being geared toward defending Taiwan’s democracy. Nonsense! Taiwan was not a democracy. It was a one-party, highly militarized dictatorship. We need to articulate a version of a One China policy that we truly believe in and will abide by, and it will be a version that changes the original deal, and China won’t like it. They’ll huff and they’ll puff, but they probably won’t blow the house down. They’ll learn to live with it, but then we have to live with it too. There’s just too much at stake here. The people who will have to pay the price for all of our moral posturing are the Taiwanese people, not the Americans, in all likelihood.

In April 2001, before China was the world power it became, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. spy plane, an incident that resulted in an 11-day diplomatic standoff. Eventually, China released the U.S. crew before things got out of hand. If a similar incident happened now, what do you think would happen?
First and most concerning is if there were an accident like that, all of the evidence is that, that we would reach out to China at high levels immediately, and that China might very well not answer. That happened in 1999 and in 2001, and it just happened again when Secretary of Defense Austin tried to reach out about the balloon to his counterpart.

China tends not to pick up the phone for a couple of reasons. First, it has a highly consultative internal process. It likes to know exactly where it stands before it speaks to us, and that can take some time. The other reason that China is very adverse to these sorts of mechanisms, which we think can alleviate crises and prevent them from spinning out of control, is that they think we use them to legitimize what it sees as illegitimate acts. So one of the reasons that Secretary Austin’s counterpart didn’t pick up the phone is that he probably knows pretty much what Austin is going to say. We generally can predict the other’s talking points. He knows that Austin’s goal is to have it all be okay, right? And China’s view is, it’s not all okay. They think this is happening because the United States falsely demonizes China, wants to counter China, contain them, and overthrow China’s government. It wants regime change. Again, I’m speaking from the Chinese point of view here — that there’s an absolutely false narrative of a bad China and a righteous United States that underlies American actions. And China’s simply not going to dignify that or legitimize that by having these conversations. They believe that we are a declining power cleaving in a desperate, diluted dangerous way to any remaining vestige of our power. They think that time is on their side there.

This doesn’t sound like a recipe for a peaceful resolution.
It would depend on the nature of an accident, but I assume you’re saying that people would have died. When this happened previously in 1999 and 2001, we were still within what we now call retroactively the engagement era in U.S.-China relations. We didn’t call it that at the time. We just called it U.S.-China relations. And it was always competitive to a degree, and contentious to a degree. But from roughly the mid-’70s until roughly the advent of Xi Jinping — people argue about how to date this, some would date it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — the United States and China both believed that co-evolution was in our mutual interest. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t always satisfactory, but cooperation and integration worked for both of us. And it was against that background that we managed to find a way out of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and then the 2001 spy-plane incident. There is no such trust or belief in co-evolution today. Nationalism has grown in both countries, in Washington and throughout China. There is less patience for nuance. There is less patience for patience.

And you think admitting that there’s such a gulf between the countries is the first step to coming up with a solution?
Neither country is yet willing to publicly face up to quite how dire this relationship is for somewhat different reasons. I know that the Biden administration is not going to declare a Cold War. Governments don’t really do that — but something that happens in popular culture. So I’m not asking the Biden administration to say, “Yes, this is a Cold War.” I just think it would be helpful if they stop saying it isn’t, because it confuses people in light of all of the evidence. Unless something happens where we recognize how dire this is, and we have a framework for it, we’re unlikely to be able to deal in the short term, with certain disruptions and certain crises. China’s framework is that it’s all America’s fault — that we should recognize that China’s rise is legitimate, that its development is righteous, and that the Chinese Communist Party in precisely its current form is what China needs and what the Chinese people want.

And if you’d get out of our way, then all will be copacetic, right? That’s the Chinese view. And our view is that China needs to finally confront modernity and the fact that China is one nation among others, and it needs to integrate into a world the rules of which we’re shaped to a considerable degree, by enlightenment values, by freedom of speech, by debate, by rule of law, by transparency, et cetera. And so we’re sort of stuck there. And this is why, again, I think that if we recognized how dire things are, even though that’s a depressing prospect, and it gives me no joy to speak this way, we’d actually be better equipped to deal well with more worrisome crises. There were no body bags this time. It was just the balloon. But there will be greater crises, and we’re not well positioned to handle them right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.