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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame professors comment on worsening U.S.-China relations

Over the past few weeks, the United States has witnessed a heightening of tensions with China, raising concerns about a potential conflict between the two world powers.

On Feb. 4, a U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean that had made its way across the U.S. after being spotted by bewildered onlookers in Montana, according to a story published by the Associated Press.

Speaking on the flight and subsequent neutralization of the Chinese spy balloon, Zoltan Buzas, associate professor of global affairs at Notre Dame, said the incident will complicate efforts to improve Sino-American relations.” Buzas noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his planned visit to Beijing after the balloon was shot down.

This deterioration in U.S.-China relations comes at a time when the two countries are voicing fierce disagreements over Taiwan and China’s relationship with Russia.

Notre Dame professor of law and global affairs Diane Desierto explained that it is “not altogether clear what China stood to gain” from taking this step.

Buzas argued the use of the spy balloon gave China a tactical advantage to survey U.S. military sites when compared to surveillance satellites.

“Radars have a harder time detecting balloons, which have less predictable trajectories than satellites," he said. "Balloons can also collect better images, given their proximity to their targets."

While the response of the Biden administration to the balloon incident has been criticized by some as weak, Desierto said she does not see it that way.

“I actually think the United States had a calibrated response,” Desierto stated. “It made the determination of the threat assessment, it made the determination of the possible consequences for its population and ultimately, it did make it very clear to China that this is an obvious breach of international law.” 

Both Desierto and Buzas made the point that the balloon incident will likely harm China’s reputation on the world stage. 

“Employing spy balloons might be a good way to gather military intelligence, but it might strike people as amateurish,” Buzas argued.

“China's already in standing breach of many of its international obligations,” Desierto added. “It's just a flagrant invitation to worsen existing relations with many states around the world.”

Early in February, the U.S. announced that it had secured access to four new military bases in the Philippines, aiming to improve their tactical position in the South China Sea and counter China’s territorial ambitions for Taiwan, according to an article published by the BBC.

Desierto argued that while China will strongly oppose this move, “it also has reason to be very cautious, because now there will be more permanency and regularity with respect to the presence of American troops in Southeast Asia.”

Since the shooting down of the balloon in early February, tensions have further worsened, with Secretary Blinken revealing that China is considering sending lethal support to Russia in their war against Ukraine. In a story published by the Wall Street Journal, Blinken firmly stated that such a move would cause a “serious problem” in America's relationship with China.

China’s close alignment with Russia — in addition to its violation of U.S. airspace and threatening of Taiwan — raises the frightening specter of a military conflict between the two nuclear powers. 

In a letter to his officers, U.S. Air Force General Mike Minihan made the startling prediction that the U.S. will likely be at war with China by 2025, which was made public by NBC.

Commenting on this assessment, Desierto argued that things weren’t quite that simple.

“There have been many assessments that yes, conflict with China is imminent, but nobody has ever pinned a date,” she said.

Desierto also argued that a military conflict between the two nations might not be as direct as many believe, adding that it is a “question of the degree to which the United States will be engaged in that conflict.”

While the current situation might appear to be dim, there are still reasons to be optimistic, Buzas said.

“The two countries have shared interests. Sino-American trade is high despite efforts to decouple. There are global problems such as climate change that require Sino-American cooperation,” Buzas noted, insisting there remain areas where cooperation can still take place.  

Desierto emphasized that in order for relations to improve, more communication is necessary from the Chinese government.

“There needs to be better diplomatic communication,” Desierto said. “It certainly does not help when President Xi Jinping’s government issues inflammatory language. The Foreign Ministry pronouncements have been very inflammatory and have been very quick to characterize the United States as somehow the culprit.”

Much may depend on the two countries' ability to accomplish this, Desertio emphasized.