The fallout from the alleged Chinese “spy” balloon that flew over the United States has cemented a near bipartisan consensus in Washington over 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 the renewed tensions, many politicians in Washington are invoking the incident to call for tougher policies.
US President Joe Biden himself warned China against threatening US sovereignty during his annual State of the Union speech, seen by an estimated 23.4 million TV viewers on Tuesday evening.
“The Biden administration has shown that it is very concerned with attacks particularly from the right, from Republican critics, that they are being 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 in from the right, I think we often see them leaning further in the direction of confrontational politics.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a previously scheduled trip to Beijing over the balloon incident, which the Biden administration has called an “unacceptable” violation of American sovereignty.
The US military shot down the balloon on Saturday as it flew over the Atlantic Ocean, after days of debate and congressional calls to bring it down.
In his State of the Union speech, Biden said the US is not seeking confrontation in its competition with China but warned that Washington will stand up for its interests against Beijing.
“As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country — and we did,” he said.
What do we know about the balloon?
Little is publicly known about the Chinese balloon or what it was doing in US airspace. Nonetheless, its presence caused a significant political stir and produced countless news headlines and wall-to-wall coverage.
China initially expressed regret for the incident, describing the balloon as a civilian airship used for meteorological research that “deviated far from its planned course”. Beijing later condemned the US hit to bring down the aircraft.
But the Pentagon insisted it was a “high-altitude surveillance balloon”, although US defence officials said the balloon did not pose a “military or physical threat”.
Still, some Republican lawmakers kept describing the aircraft as a risk to national security.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton denounced the Biden administration for allowing the balloon to traverse the continental US for days before shooting it down.
Cotton told Fox News earlier this week that he felt the delay in Biden’s response was “dangerous for the American people”. He also accused the administration of pushing to salvage Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which he described as “already ill-advised”.
US officials had previously said that, if the balloon were brought down over land, falling debris could “potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage”.
Christopher Heurlin, an associate professor of government and Asian studies at Bowdoin College in the US state of Maine, said while the balloon may not have been a direct threat to Americans, it created a “shock” in the country.
“We like to think in the United States that we live in North America and we’re oceans away from any kind of competitors — and in that sense, not very vulnerable,” Heurlin told Al Jazeera.
“Whereas having the spy balloon flying overhead, I think, does create some kind of visceral sense of vulnerability in the collective psyche.”
As for Blinken’s trip, Heurlin said “political considerations” played a role in the decision to postpone it.
“I’m not sure that politically Biden would have been able to get away with sending Secretary of State Blinken to China under these circumstances,” he told Al Jazeera.
Chow, the director of Justice Is Global, agreed that the “panic” over the balloon likely led to postponing the visit.
“I think the Biden administration correctly judged that the balloon was not really that big of a deal,” Chow told Al Jazeera. “But they felt overwhelmed by this wave of media coverage and this very extreme freakout from the right.”
How we got here
The balloon incident came against the backdrop of growing animosity 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 also prioritised competition with Beijing in its defence strategy.
Both assessments primarily focused on China, not Russia, despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted global supply chains for vital goods like food and energy and ushered in the most intense violence in Europe since World War II.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, China’s claims in the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US has also been warning China against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
So how did we get here?
As Washington’s so-called “war on terror” — initiated during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — began to wind down, the US turned its focus to competing with China, whose economic power and push for global influence has been growing.
Chow said the root of the tensions is “neoliberal free-trade globalisation”. That economic framework, he explained, has been experiencing deeper systemic problems since the 2008 financial crisis and has led to “zero-sum competition, which then became the breeding ground for dangerous nationalist politics”.
Heurlin, the professor, linked the current state of affairs between the two countries to economics as well. 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 a “vocal defence of Chinese interests”.
“That is something that they’ve been doing really to appeal to Chinese nationalists back home,” Heurlin told Al Jazeera.
“So I think on both sides, this is something that’s been happening for a while. And then especially once Donald Trump comes to the American presidency and starts the trade war with China, that’s when relations really start to bottom out.”
Ultimately, Heurlin said, the US 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 the deteriorating relationship, officials in both countries continue to call for cooperation on shared global challenges — namely combatting climate change and the COVID pandemic — as well as warn against confrontation.
But for the foreseeable future, the tensions show no sign of subsiding.
“What we should anticipate is that conflict between the US and China is going to continue and build and escalate over time,” Chow said. “And if things don’t change, then yes, this is going to be a long-term great power conflict that is going to have enormous consequences for people in the US and China and around the world.”
Heurlin echoed that prediction but said he hopes that, with China ending its “zero COVID” policies, more people-to-people interactions between US 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 both Beijing and Washington and I don’t think there really is any kind of magical solution,” he said.