China has accused the United States of overreacting after President Joe Biden ordered a suspected spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Sunday. China maintains the balloon, first spotted over U.S. airspace last week, was a civilian aircraft blown off course. The U.S. and China have been conducting surveillance on each other for years using spy satellites, hacking and other means. The Pentagon has revealed Chinese balloons also entered the continental United States at least three times during the Trump administration, as well as once before under Biden. The balloon saga led to the abrupt cancellation of a planned trip by Secretary of State Tony Blinken to Beijing and threatens to further derail the relationship between the two countries. “The two countries need to speak to each other,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a visiting fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center and formerly the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, in a wide-ranging interview about evolving U.S-China relations and potential for tensions to escalate further.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at U.S.-China relations, after President Biden ordered the Pentagon to shoot down a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina Saturday. The balloon is believed to have first entered the U.S. airspace in Alaska and was then spotted in Montana, which is the home of the Malmstrom Air Force Base, a major U.S. nuclear weapons site. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced he was postponing a trip this week to China, where he was scheduled to meet with China’s foreign minister. Blinken spoke Friday.
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: We’re confident this is a Chinese surveillance balloon. Once we detected the balloon, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information. We communicated with the PRC government directly through multiple channels about this issue. Members of my team consulted with our partners in other agencies and in Congress. We also engaged our close allies and partners to inform them of the presence of the surveillance balloon in our airspace. We concluded that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time.
AMY GOODMAN: China has criticized the U.S. for shooting down what Beijing has described as a “civilian airship.” On Friday, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, quote, “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace … It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. … The airship deviated far from its planned course,” he said.
U.S. divers are now searching the waters off the coast of South Carolina for remnants of the downed balloon to learn more about its mission. A second Chinese balloon has been spotted in Latin America. It’s widely known that the U.S. and China have been conducting surveillance on each other for years, using satellites, hacking, spies and other means.
Over the weekend, Republican lawmakers blasted President Biden for allowing the balloon to fly across the United States. But the Pentagon has revealed Chinese balloons also entered the continental United States at least three times during the Trump administration, as well as once before under Biden.
This all comes just days after the Philippines agreed to allow the U.S. military to expand its military footprint in the former U.S. colony as part of Washington’s efforts to counter China.
We’re joined now by Nicholas Bequelin. He is a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, previously worked at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Nicholas Bequelin, if you could start off by just going through what happened this weekend, both the downing of the surveillance satellite, which is, I think, believed to be about three buses long, and also Blinken deciding to cancel his meeting in Beijing with President Xi?
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: That’s right. So, I think that the — you know, the U.S.-China relation is really at the lowest point we’ve seen in decades. What started as an incident over a surveillance balloon really has turned into a much bigger issue on the world’s geopolitical stage. The balloon was spotted by the U.S. military, which is something that you expect — countries spy on each other. But the question we have to ask ourselves is: Why did the U.S. decide to make it public, and, in making it public, basically seal the fate of that rekindling of the U.S.-China relationship with a visit by Secretary of State Blinken to China, where he would be meeting with President Xi Jinping ahead and preparing the ground for a meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping? So, I think once the issue of the spy balloon was in the public eye, it was just a matter of time before, you know, the war of words between the two countries escalated, that the polarization in the U.S. discourse towards China was reignited, and that, ultimately, the balloon was going to be shot down.
So, the real question here is: Why do we have this sort of public theater over the spying activities of China? Which are, you know, very long — there’s a very long history of it, and, of course, the U.S. also spies on China — although, we have to admit, one country is a democracy, the other is a one-party dictatorship. But nonetheless, on the international stage, you know, countries do spy on each other. And the question we have to ask ourselves is: What is gained from wrecking the rekindling of the U.S.-China relationship? Is it making Americans safer? Is it making the world safer? Is it going to help us tackle climate change or technology or rekindle economic growth? I don’t think that there has been much thinking about this. And this inflection point is, I think, very worrying for the future of the relationship and for the future of global politics.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s clear what happened was, I mean, the satellite balloon came in through the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, went down through Canada, came through, what, Idaho, Montana, made its way across the country. Normally, as you said, this has happened before, again and again and again, mainly under the Republican administration of Trump, but people didn’t see it with their naked eye. Biden had to respond because, in Montana, they — in Billings, they were taking pictures of it. But the question is: Why do you hold a summit, like the one between Blinken and President Xi? Is it during just peaceful times, or is it during times of great conflict, where you want to resolve something? So, what about Blinken — and, of course, that would be at the behest of President Biden — canceling a meeting at this critical juncture?
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: Well, I think that the U.S. policy predating this incident has been to contain China, to take all sorts of measure — diplomatic, military, intelligence — in order to prevent the rise of what it sees as a peer competitor of the United States. China is an autocratic regime. It has military ambitions. It wants to reshape the international order. The U.S. thinks that it has to stop this. It has clearly said that its ambition is to remain the only superpower and remain number one. And, of course, this is viewed very dimly in Beijing.
You have to put this incident back in the context of the long relationship between U.S. and China. From Beijing’s perspective, you have to go back to 1999, when the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Yugoslav war. You have to put it in context looking back at 2001, when a U.S. spy EP-3 plane was downed after a collision with a Chinese jet. You have to put it back in context, because the U.S. is conducting a lot of military maneuvers near the Chinese coast around Taiwan. So, from Beijing’s perspective, you know, this is not an equal fight. This is not a peer to peer. China is the challenger. China is the one who feels surrounded and bullied by the U.S. And they see this as sort of another step in that direction.
And again, you know, the question is: All right, if the U.S. really asserts its supremacy in this way, if it’s committed to remaining the only superpower and the top superpower, will all the problems in the world disappear? And I think that’s a really magical thinking to think that by refusing to engage with China, by refusing to talk with China, by not making the conditions conducive to a meeting between Biden and Xi, that you somehow magically are going to solve all the problems that are urgent and that needs to be addressing. The two countries need to speak to each other. And what we’ve seen with this balloon incident is a lot of theatrics that justify just the opposite.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what’s happening between the U.S. and China. You have China having a relationship with Russia, and some are accusing it of supporting Russia in some ways, though it has also held back from supporting the invasion, has actually criticized the invasion. And you have Secretary of Defense Austin in the Philippines announcing that U.S. military bases would be increasing there. Clearly, this has to do with China, the increased U.S. militarization from South China Sea to the Philippines. Can you talk about the significance of this?
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: Oh, this is extremely significant. And the announcement by the Philippines that it would open up a number of naval bases to the U.S. is just the latest of some major tectonic shifts in geopolitical relations in the region. You also have a new alliance between Japan, Australia, the U.S. and India. You have new economic trade deals. You have security arrangements between India and the U.S. India was for a very long time trying to remain neutral but now is sort of leaning towards the U.S. because of the perceived danger from China. So, there is a very deliberate, concerted attempt by the U.S. to encircle China and to prevent it, to dissuade it — that’s the idea — of causing a conflict in the South China Sea by trying to militarily take over Taiwan or just gaining influence in the Indo-Pacific, which the U.S. sees as its area of influence and relevant to national security.
Now, there is no denying that we have to be very wary of a one-party state dictatorship ambitions. And under Xi Jinping, China has an absolutely horrific record on human rights and on other matters. But, you know, look at the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, up to a million of people thrown into labor camp. Look at what happened in Hong Kong, which was decapitated with a national security law that has led to the arrest of hundreds of peaceful protesters and opposition lawmakers. So, there is no doubt that, you know, China wants to disrupt the world order, wants to make it more comfortable for a dictatorship and one-party system. And that should be opposed.
But the problem is: Do you oppose it better by not talking at all with China? And that seems to be the Biden administration’s strategy. And we have to be very careful, because seeding the seeds of humiliation and resentment is not a good policy. We’ve seen it with Russia. Russia is no peer competitor to the U.S., but it can create a huge amount of problem. We see it with Turkey, the same thing. So, is that what we want from China? We want a weakened China that is — will remain always under the U.S. in terms of comparative power. That’s pretty much a given, actually. But that we want them to be resentful against the U.S. and against the West and seed, you know, the roots of possible conflicts in the future?
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about both China’s relationship with Russia — I mean, at the same time, it looks like President Xi, in the last months, has been trying to smooth over waves with the United States. And then also talk about what you think will happen with Taiwan.
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: So, let’s start with Russia. I think that what we see with Russia is that, you know, China feels very isolated on the international stage. And it sees a looming conflict — it’s not military — at least a very strong geopolitical conflict with the U.S. It cannot afford, in Beijing’s eyes, to lose an ally like Russia. At the same time, its economy and its opening to globalization and to the world cannot afford to cut off relationship with the West. We have to remember that China mostly trades with the U.S. — trade with the U.S. is at its highest point historically — and with Europe. So, they don’t want to lose this. So they have this sort of fake neutrality, where they don’t engage in support to Russia but actually sort of continue to trade normally.
So, the fact that China aligns itself or sort of has this fake neutrality with Russia is a concern. But how do you address it? Do you address it by trying to convince China to peel off the support to Russia and to Putin, or do you just declare them as enemies of the same ilk and refuse to speak to them? I think that’s one of the questions that has to be asked, and we haven’t seen much from this from the U.S. administration at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: And Taiwan?
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: So, Taiwan is really a huge issue. There is absolutely no doubt that China has the ambition to reclaim Taiwan as its own. And it has not put a military solution off the table. That is extremely worrying. Now, what is equally worrying is the fact that the U.S. has basically abandoned the terms of the coexistence with China on this issue, which is, you know, we leave the status quo, and we will respect some red lines and — such as Taiwan declaring independence or stationing U.S. troops on Taiwan or Taiwan taking — one of the two sides, either Taiwan or China, taking military action. But the domestic politics in the U.S. at the moment, with the opposition to China being basically the only glue, the only common area between the Democrats and the Republicans, means that there is a constant escalation of —
AMY GOODMAN: And the media, by the way. And the media.
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: And the media. And the media. And there is a constant escalation of, you know, how to be stronger, who’s going to be the strongest towards China and on Taiwan, with a string of very high-profile visits, diplomatic visits to Taiwan, which are bound to irritate China and then call a response from China, which then calls a response for the U.S. and so on. So you have this tit-for-tat escalation, which is, I think, very dangerous, because this is how every major war starts, basically, by some incident that runs out of control.
So, the U.S., you know, does have an interest in keeping Taiwan free and avoiding a military conflict there. But again, you know, isn’t the best way to do that to actually have a thorough and large diplomatic relationship with — you know, with disagreements? Having diplomatic relationship with another country doesn’t mean you agree with it. We all have relatives or businesses —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean with China, having diplomatic relations with China.
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: Yes, that’s right. What’s the obstacle to actually, you know, talking? What we saw at the G7 in Indonesia a couple of months ago, when Xi and Biden met for the first time, was that it immediately led to kind of a thaw in the relationship and sort of hope that things could be normalized and that there would be guardrails for the relationship and that the two countries would work to avoid misunderstanding that can spiral out into a conflict and possibly into a military conflict. This is off the table now. Blinken will not go to Beijing, which means there will be no preparation for a meeting between the two heads of state. And we are really at a very, very damaging inflection point in the U.S.-China relationship.
The message here that I want to convey, really, is, yes, the U.S. will and can remain the sole superpower, the number one. China is not going to catch up with the U.S. It doesn’t have the assets. It doesn’t have the resources. It doesn’t have the global influence. It doesn’t even have the innovation of the U.S. But do you want to keep China in a position where it feels permanently aggrieved and increasingly belligerent? I don’t think that serves anyone’s interests.
AMY GOODMAN: And doesn’t one superpower in the world also destabilize the world?
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: Well, that’s right. I think that we’ve seen from the long history of, you know, U.S. intervention around the world and geopolitical play that one of the recurring themes is the overconfidence that the current administration has the solution for a particular problem: We know what we must do. We know that to solve the Iraq problem, we must have regime change, and then everything is going to be fine. We know that the approach to the Middle East should now run through this or that. Right?
And now we have this same culture, you know, confidence about we know what China wants. We know how it’s run. We know how to stop it. And we’re just rolling out. And anyone who disagrees with our approach has to be pushed aside and ignored. And I think that that’s a trait of American foreign policy over decades, and that’s always a worrying sign, because, you know, very often it has ended badly.
AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Bequelin, we want to thank you so much for being with us, visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, previously with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Coming up, we speak to longtime human rights attorney Reed Brody about the European Commission’s plans to set up a special center in The Hague to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression for its invasion of Ukraine. What has been the U.S.’s response of setting up a special unit to look at the crime of aggression being war? Stay with us.