From Ping-pong Diplomacy to Balloon Crisis

February 13, 2023

Already, there is a lot to be said about the Turkey-Syria earthquake. There will be much more in the weeks and months ahead. Neither the dust will set settle, nor the grief, and anger will go away soon. But one can perhaps wait until the victims of the disaster are laid in their final resting places. All I wish to say for now is that Türkiye is eternally grateful to those rescue workers from abroad who joined the Turkish teams in a heroic effort to deal with the tragic consequences of this catastrophe. And I also would simply draw attention to the glaring contradiction between saving lives in Türkiye and Syria and the year-long bloodshed in Ukraine.

On April 10, 1971, the US table tennis team arrived in China. Later in the year, in July 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China paving the way for President Nixon’s own visit. The US President and his Chinese hosts agreed to the joint “Shanghai Communique” of February 27, 1972, in which both nations pledged to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations. As part of the effort, on May 1, 1973, the US opened a liaison office in Beijing to handle all matters in the US-China relationship “except the strictly formal diplomatic aspects of the relationship.” China created a counterpart office in Washington in the same year. Finally, on January 1, 1979, the US recognized the People’s Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with it as the sole legitimate government of China.

At the time Turkey had also launched talks with China in Paris and the Nixon administration was pressing hard to discourage the Turkish government from establishing formal relations with Beijing soon. Regardless, the talks continued for some months, and Turkey officially recognized China on August 4, 1971, long before the US, a tribute to Türkiye’s Republican diplomacy when the policy was driven by strict adherence to national interests and not “to the will of foreign powers”, as the AKP government claims today.

Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China put the excesses of the Mao era behind. His years in power were characterized by economic reform, rising standards of living, and growing ties to the world economy. Thus, China contributed to the process of globalization, benefited from it, and emerged as a world power. Remarkably, in the world’s fourth-largest country and most populous nation, all of this happened within five decades. Today, China says that it has Chinese-style democracy; that the people’s democracy practiced in China is based on the country’s reality, history, and culture, and reflects people’s will. In other words, China remains an authoritarian state.

During the past two decades, as the US fought its longest war in Afghanistan, tried to deal with the negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq and Arab spring interventions, and encouraged Georgia in what proved a disastrous attempt to challenge Russia, China focused on its economic development. It built economic bridgeheads across the world. Today China is the world’s largest trading nation. It is the EU’s largest trading partner. Nearly two-thirds of all countries trade more with China than with the US. Moreover, China avoided getting involved in international disputes, and Arab spring adventures. US officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking did not allow regional questions to turn into crises. It did not resort to force. Beijing’s defense budget is below 2% of its GDP. Chinese officials have reacted to the strong criticism directed against their country in measured language because China’s public diplomacy is generally reserved and cautious. China advocates multilateralism.

Some in the West accuse China of not condemning the invasion of Ukraine. In a Foreign Affairs article arguing for a tougher Western line toward Russia, Michael McFaul nonetheless said, “Even Chinese leader Xi Jinping has offered Putin only faint rhetorical support for his war. He has not provided Russia with weapons and has cautiously avoided violating the global sanctions regime.” [i]

Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping last met in Bali on the margins of the G-20 summit in Bali on November 14, 2022.

The Chinese readout of the meeting said that China-US relations should not be a zero-sum game where one side out-competes or thrives at the expense of the other; that the world is big enough for the two countries to develop themselves and prosper together.

The US readout said President Biden explained that the US will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC, including by investing in sources of strength at home and aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world; that he reiterated that this competition should not veer into conflict and underscored that the US and China must manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication. The readout also said, “The two leaders agreed that Secretary of State Blinken will visit China to follow up on their discussions.”

The paragraphs dealing with Taiwan were diametrically opposed reflecting a fundamental conflict of interest.

In early January 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited France, Italy, Britain, Canada, and the US. In the background was the war in Ukraine, China’s growing military might, North Korea’s becoming a de facto nuclear power, and Japan’s “National Security Strategy”, made public on December 16, 2022.

Mr. Kishida’s visit to Washington was an opportunity to underline the strength of the US-Japan alliance. In remarks to the press before the talks President Biden said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve been closer to Japan in the United States.” In his speech at Johns Hopkins University, Prime Minister Kishida said that it is imperative for Japan, the US, and Europe to stand united in managing their respective relationships with China.

NATO’s Brussels Summit Communiqué of June 14, 2021, declared that China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security.

In late January 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited the Republic of Korea and Japan as part of his regular engagement with NATO’s Asia-Pacific partners, demonstrating the “growing synergy between the Atlantic and Pacific alliances”, according to the NATO website. Both in Seoul and Tokyo he said that transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security are deeply interconnected; that what happens in the Indo-Pacific matters to NATO and what happens in Europe matters to the Indo-Pacific. It appears that understandably Koreans are worried not only about North Korea but also about the implications of their cooperation with NATO for their relationship with China.[ii]

At the CHEY Institute in Seoul, Mr. Stoltenberg was asked what kind of a response could be expected from NATO if there were a “security contingency” in the Korean Peninsula. He responded that he should be careful speculating about exactly what will happen if there is an incident in the region.

In Tokyo, Mr. Stoltenberg’s remarks at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Kishida were noteworthy, underlining the nature of the NATO-Japan relationship.[iii]  He said:

“Prime Minister, we spoke today about your new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy… And your plan to reach the NATO benchmark of investing 2% of GDP in defense in 2027.

“Your strategy recognizes that China’s behavior is “a matter of serious concern”. NATO agrees. China is substantially building up its military forces, including nuclear weapons. Bullying its neighbors, and threatening Taiwan. Trying to control critical infrastructure. And spreading disinformation about NATO and the war in Ukraine.

“China is not our adversary, but we must understand the scale of the challenge. And work together to address it.”

Japan’s concerns about China’s rise are understandable as they also have a historical dimension. Following the Japanese invasion, China and Japan were at total war from 1937 to 1945. When Japan was finally defeated in 1945, China was devastated, having suffered some 15 million deaths.

On February 2, 2023, the US and the Philippines announced an agreement that allows Washington to station military equipment and build facilities in four more locations, bringing the number to nine, across the Southeast Asian nation. Secretary Austin underlined that these sites were not permanent as the Philippines Constitution does not allow foreign troops to be permanently based there.

In his State of the Union address on February 7, 2023, President Biden said, “… winning the competition with China should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world.”

In brief, US efforts to contain China had become more visible before Secretary Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing. But the controversy over a spy balloon/civilian airship flying over US territory caused him to “postpone” his visit. Many questions regarding the incident are likely to remain unanswered for some time. US failure to detect and down earlier balloons crossing into US territory and Chinese confidence in the invisibility boggles the mind. The reality is, all major powers engage in a multitude of surveillance activities to learn more about the capabilities of their adversaries, but balloons overflying continents visible to people on the land seem to be a novelty. It is clear that Beijing owes the world some explanation beyond attributing these incidents to “force majeure”.

Secretary Blinken has only “postponed” his planned trip to Beijing. Whenever he goes there, the balloon incident and the downing of three more unidentified high-altitude objects over the US and Canada would not make his task easier.






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