It was earlier reported that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would meet with President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing on 5-6 February. But a giant Chinese balloon (China calls it an “unmanned airship”) suddenly flew over the US, quashing hopes of a China-US relations reset. Blinken has since postponed his Beijing visit.
Interestingly, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on 4 February: “In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that.” There is no way of knowing what happened.
Regarding the giant balloon (said to be the size of three buses), the Chinese said: “It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. This is entirely an unexpected situation caused by force majeure and the facts are very clear. China always acts in strict accordance with international law and respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. We have no intention to violate and has never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country.”
It is clear from the balloon incident how badly China-US relations have deteriorated.
Suspicions and tensions
The US said the flying object was a spy balloon that was found to have “violated” US airspace on 28 January. However, it was not until 4 February that a fighter jet was deployed to shoot down the balloon with a missile. Even for the layman, it is difficult to believe that a China that wants to send astronauts to the moon would use a large “primitive” balloon to spy on the US. The US is currently collecting the remnants of the balloon to ascertain the true purpose of the flying object. But China has protested against this move, calling the use of force “a serious violation of international practice” and declaring that it “reserves the right to make further responses if necessary”. But it is just as puzzling why Beijing kept silent about a balloon being blown off course and did not give the other party a heads-up?
It is clear from the balloon incident how badly China-US relations have deteriorated. The two parties are like a couple who have turned against each other and ended up in divorce; they are suspicious of each other amid rising tensions. On the one hand, China has just emerged from its strict three-year-long zero-Covid policy and is striving to revive its economy — it naturally hopes that tensions can be eased. On the other hand, because of the US’s complex internal political issues, the anti-China trend is unlikely to change. The balloon incident unfortunately added fuel to the fire. Nobody knows where China-US relations are headed now.
Back when US-China relations shifted from hostility to rapprochement and later when the two countries joined hands to resist the Soviet Union, it was a delicate balance in relations between the triumvirate of China, the US and the Soviet Union. The convergence of various domestic and international factors and the pivotal changes that emerged have transformed the course of world history and brought half a century of peace to Asia. But in the blink of an eye, time and conditions changed and China has replaced the Soviet Union to become what the US considers its top competitor. Now, American political and business elites not only want to bring down Russia but are also determined to defeat China.
After that, China and other Southeast Asian countries put aside disputes and focused on economic development.
Maintaining an ‘Asian peace’
This is extremely dangerous for Asia because it is the grass that suffers when elephants fight. If China-US relations continue to worsen, the possibility of accidental conflicts or direct confrontation will grow. This will not only harm both parties but also implicate other countries, ultimately undermining Asia’s peace and the collective gains that countries have made on that basis. Van Jackson, American political scientist and senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, provides a relatively objective and detailed analysis of “Asian peace” in his book Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace.
The concept of an Asian peace goes back to the improvement of China-US relations following US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Nobody would understate the importance of that historic change. Big countries generally adjust diplomatic policy out of their own needs, but such changes might lead to unexpected long-term effects, which is what happened with the Asian peace that came from the change in China-US relations. However, Jackson says Asian peace really began in 1979, the year China — with the tacit approval of the US — sent troops to teach Vietnam a lesson and beat back the expansionist plans of the Viet Cong.
After that, China and other Southeast Asian countries put aside disputes and focused on economic development. China’s economy rose and Asian countries built economic interdependence closer than ever before. During that time, the Soviet Union dissolved and the US gained dominance. Elite US policymakers mistakenly thought Asian peace was wholly consequent from independent US military support, which was not the case. Jackson notes that while improved China-US relations was the fundamental reason, Asian peace also gained from a combination of other factors, including a general warming of big power relations, economic interdependence, the rise of regionalism (such as the function of ASEAN), as well as democracy and good governance. However, big-headed US policymakers saw only the US’s invincible military power, and nothing else.
The book said that US presidents from Ronald Reagan onwards liked to talk about a balance of power, but in fact they all pursued military dominance. This is the problem with US diplomacy: not having defence as a supplement to governance, but as a substitute for it. However, it is extremely dangerous to think that the US military advantage alone is enough to keep Asian peace. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of an arms race in Asia, with the rising popularity of terms like “Asian NATO” and “Asianisation” of NATO. It is especially worth noting that the previously militaristic Japan that once invaded and occupied the entire Asia-Pacific region is now again building up its military.
...other Asia-Pacific countries see clearly that what the region needs is a balance of power, relative stability and peace.
Is Asian peace hanging by a thread? Last month, Jackson wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “The Problem With Primacy: America’s Dangerous Quest to Dominate the Pacific”, focusing on the US and Asian peace. He noted that Washington’s international dominance coincided with the post-1979 Asian peace, and the US had little trouble holding sway over the region without provoking any conflicts: “Over time, Washington even came to believe that U.S. supremacy and regional tranquility could not just coexist but were causally related. As a result, U.S. policymakers made maintaining Asian primacy the foundation of their regional strategy, arguing that without Washington’s leadership, Asia would devolve into warfare.”
By this “logic”, China has become the US’s number one adversary and the most likely to weaken the US’s leading position in the Asia-Pacific, or even affect the US’s ability to defend global interests. The result is that the US is aggressively growing its military, with a budget of over US$850 billion for 2023. The US considers the Asia-Pacific an abstract stage for power politics, which completely goes against the intentions and interests of countries in the region. They do not want to be drawn into a power struggle between big countries; what they want is stability and growth.
Jackson is not involved, but other academics have long pointed out another key factor that determines US military spending: the invisible hand of the military-industrial complex, a convoluted interest group that even includes some so-called think tanks, whose “livelihood” is weapons sales and opening up weapons markets. If the world was peaceful, they would be finished.
Besides countries tied to the US war machine, such as Japan and South Korea, other Asia-Pacific countries see clearly that what the region needs is a balance of power, relative stability and peace. And so, amid intensifying tussling between the US and China, maintaining the Asian peace and preventing it from being sacrificed should be a major issue that Asia-Pacific countries, especially ASEAN, need to resolve together.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “关键是维护亚洲和平”.
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