Blaming the United States for letting the “balloon incident” unnecessarily create “a very unfortunate effect on Sino-American relations,” Chas Freeman said the implications of the abrupt scrapping of Blinken’s trip to China are threefold, all of which are indicative of the Biden administration’s inability to engage with China meaningfully.
The Joe Biden administration’s hysterical overreaction to a Chinese unmanned civilian airship unexpectedly entering U.S. airspace is proof of the current U.S. government’s inability to overcome domestic pressure and manage the relationship between Washington and Beijing in times of high tension, a former U.S. diplomat has said.
In an interview with Xinhua, Chas Freeman reiterated his criticism of the Biden administration’s strategy toward China that wrongfully prioritizes competition over cooperation and called on the administration to learn from the diplomatic wisdom possessed by the older generation of leaders of both the United States and China that made the normalization of ties between the two countries in the 1970s a reality.
A retired career diplomat, Freeman was a member of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s entourage during the president’s ice-breaking trip to China in 1972, serving as the U.S. delegation’s principal interpreter.
“THEY STRUCK ME AS HYSTERIA”
Speaking of the so-called “balloon incident,” Freeman highlighted the “clear disconnect” between the initial assessment by the U.S. military and the intelligence community of the non-threatening nature of the airship and the peddling by U.S. politicians of what they speculated to be the craft’s purpose of “espionage.”
“From the beginning, the military said this did not represent a threat of any consequence to U.S. national security. And it was the politicians who began to invent a series of theories about the use of this balloon for espionage,” Freeman said, adding the fact that the arrival of the airship coincided with a polar vortex over North America made him believe that the incident was not something the Chinese side was able to anticipate beforehand. “The course of the balloon may and well have been accidental.”
Despite China’s timely notification — based on an earnest verification — to the United Sates that the airship was used for meteorological research and unintentionally entered U.S. airspace, Washington overreacted to the isolated incident by shooting down the airship, claiming that China has a so-called high-altitude surveillance balloon program and imposing sanctions on Chinese companies it alleged are linked to the program.
“They struck me as hysteria,” Freeman said of U.S. perceptions about and reactions to the incident. It was “a kind of almost psychotic reaction to an event in which facts were set aside and replaced by conspiracy theories.”
Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, had an informal contact with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday in Munich, Germany, where they were both attending the 59th Munich Security Conference participated by world leaders.
“If the U.S. side continues to fuss over, dramatize and escalate the unintended and isolated incident, it should not expect the Chinese side to flinch,” Wang told Blinken when setting forth China’s strong position on the “balloon incident,” according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Freeman said he agreed “completely with the Chinese statement that this was an overreaction” by the U.S. side.
It is “unfortunately not uncommon” for the United States to exaggerate the nature of this unintended accident, he added, given that the country is currently plagued by domestic political polarization.
On the revelation from the Chinese side that the United States illegally flew high-altitude balloons into Chinese airspace multiple times to surveil intelligence information, Freeman said he suspected “maybe there is” a U.S. balloon program that’s still in existence, noting “the United States in the 1950s had a very active program of using balloons for military targeting purposes over the Soviet Union.”
He suggested that the United States and China discuss “what kind of overflight at what altitude is permissible,” so that the flight of high-altitude aerial objects can be governed by either certain “legal standards” or “perhaps some kind of arms control agreement.”
“APPARENTLY WE ARE POLITICALLY PARALYZED”
As part of U.S. response to the balloon incident, Blinken postponed his trip to Beijing originally scheduled for early February.
In the view of Freeman, one of Blinken’s intended goals for the planned China trip was “a domestic political posturing” to show Americans at home that the Biden administration was “just as tough on China as the Donald Trump administration was.” Now the “cancellation of the visit did exactly the opposite,” he said.
Blaming the United States for letting the “balloon incident” unnecessarily create “a very unfortunate effect on Sino-American relations,” Freeman said the implications of the abrupt scrapping of Blinken’s trip to China are threefold, all of which are indicative of the Biden administration’s inability to engage with China meaningfully.
“First, it appeared to show that the United States and China cannot talk under conditions of tension,” he said. “That is very unnerving to the world. It is a matter of grave concern not just to Americans and Chinese who follow these things, but to many in other countries.”
“Second, we showed that we do not know how to manage this relationship in conditions of crisis. And that, too, is a matter of concern,” he said. “And third, we showed not that Mr. Biden was politically strong, but that he was weak. He could not stand up to domestic political pressure.”
“Apparently we are politically paralyzed in the United States and prevented from taking any initiative to address the first two questions: Can we talk? Can we manage the relationship,” said Freeman.
In recent days, the Biden administration’s public messaging on China has been self-contradictory.
In what U.S. media interpreted as a move to contain the further fallout of the balloon episode, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told Politico in a recent interview that she didn’t think U.S.-China relations would be impacted by the incident.
Days later, when Harris was in Munich meeting with leaders of France, Germany and Britain, “the challenges posed by China” was a recurring topic during the respective interactions. It’s hard for anyone not to read into this as a sign of the Biden administration stepping up its alignment with allies against China.
“I have been a critic of the formula that the Biden administration has adopted for U.S.-China relations,” Freeman said.
“They begin by saying we will compete. We are in a competition, but we will cooperate in a few areas where that is mutually advantageous. I think that’s the wrong order. We should be focused on cooperation, and at the same time acknowledge that in some respects we will compete. So the question is the priority that you assign,” he said.
Freeman categorizes competition into three forms — “rivalry,” a positive process where the two competing parties seek to excel and ultimately result in self-improvement by both; “adversarial animosity,” a zero-sum competition like a running race where one party tries to “trip” rather than “outrun” the other party; and “enmity,” a destructive mode where one party fight for the complete annihilation of the other party.
The word “competition,” Freeman said, has been used by the Biden administration as a “euphemism” and in way that makes the concept hardly distinguishable from “animosity and hostility.” The result is that the United States, by failing to accurately describe the status of its relationship with China, has driven bilateral ties into the phase of adversarial animosity.
Freeman lamented the fact that “empathy,” which he said is required in diplomacy and was shown by both the U.S. and the Chinese sides when Nixon visited China, is nowhere to be found among those making decisions on China in the current U.S. administration.
“Empathy is understanding where the other side is coming from, what they believe, how they see things,” Freeman said. “You must understand the other side’s point of view. I don’t see much evidence that there’s much effort being made to do that on the American side.