In the closing years of the cold war, as relations between the Soviet Union and US thawed, Ronald Reagan adopted a Russian proverb: trust, but verify. These days, with Sino-US relations chilling rather than warming, there is precious little trust, and limited ability to read the other’s intentions accurately.
Relations were deteriorating long before the Chinese balloon floated into US airspace and the military shot it down. Everyone knows that the US spies on China and vice versa; it is also obvious, despite Beijing’s feigned outrage, that it would take swift action against a US device appearing in its skies. Instead of promising jets are ready for action, countries would do better to reconsider what trade-offs they have made in security for convenience and cost – as with the Chinese cameras used by British police.
Much more concerning than the actual events was the reaction to them. The Biden administration stayed calm; less so Congress and the media. China decided to blame the US, and its defence secretary refused to take a call from his counterpart, Lloyd Austin. The cancellation of the US secretary of state’s trip to China was inevitable but bad news, since the hope was that it would put a floor under relations. Antony Blinken may now meet his counterpart at the Munich security conference and Joe Biden has said he will speak to Xi Jinping to “get to the bottom” of the affair. But the trajectory is worrying.
The echoes of the past may appear unmistakable. Alongside tensions over intelligence gathering comes growing competition for allies and partners around the world. But the strife this time is between two countries that, notwithstanding their trade war, saw trade rise to almost $2bn every day of last year.
Yet if this much of a storm can be generated over one dirigible, recall the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a US surveillance plane and People’s Liberation Army fighter jet collided, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and a 10-day standoff before the American crew were released. Now imagine that in the age of social media, conspiracy theories, amped-up nationalism and a vastly more confident China. It isn’t difficult: the US and others have accused Chinese military aircraft of increasingly dangerous behaviour in international airspace near its territory.
The best hope is currently to contain rather than reverse the deterioration in relations. The political climate in the US will only become more charged as the 2024 election approaches. China’s years of untrammelled economic growth are well behind it; nationalism has been a useful alternative narrative for the party. And while it has somewhat reined in its diplomatic rhetoric, it refuses to recognise that its increasingly aggressive foreign policy is the primary cause of the militarisation and tilt towards the US in Asia which angers it.
All of this also poses a challenge for Britain and other powers, whose interests and values are aligned with, but certainly not identical to, Washington’s. The debate about how to characterise China continues in the US and the UK. But the bigger problem than the objective differences and substantive disputes may be mutual distrust – the increasing conviction on each side (but especially Beijing’s) that the other is coming for them. China has become harder to read, and does not want to hear the US. But talking – and, indeed, intelligence-gathering – is essential, if only so that each may better understand the other. Distrust is all the more reason to verify.