US political elites overreacted to balloon; US export restrictions on China are self-harm: Freeman
Confrontation and cooperation
Published: Feb 20, 2023 10:54 PM
Editor's Note:
In light of the response to the so-called "balloon incident," the US' overreaction has made people question whether "guardrails" have been built between the two countries' relations. Can cooperation still move forward when one side keeps stirring up antagonism and creating trouble? Before the "balloon incident," the US had reportedly reached agreements with the Netherlands and Japan to tighten export restrictions against China's chip sector, and stopped providing US companies with licences to export to Huawei. What is the aim of such moves by the US? Is it still possible for the two countries to cooperate? What are the prospects of bilateral ties in 2023? The Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) talked with Charles W. Freeman Jr. (Freeman), a former senior US diplomat who has witnessed the establishment and development of China-US diplomatic relations.

Video Cover: Main lesson from Nixon's historic visit is to focus on common interests: Chas Freeman

Chas Freeman

GT: How do you assess the way the US has dealt with the so-called "balloon incident"? What kind of signal does this convey? 

I think the American political elites overreacted to this balloon. Politically, I think Biden was put in a bad position. There is a widespread assumption in the US that this incident was deliberate and the Chinese side wanted to put pressure on the US. I don't believe that, but the fact is that this is the common assumption in the event. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was going to Beijing to do three things: to show that the US and China could talk despite our differences; to show that we could manage the relationship despite our hostility so that we would not have a war; and he wanted to show that the Biden administration was in charge of China policy and could act.

The cancellation of the visit had the opposite results. The world is now no longer confident that we can talk. It's not clear that we can manage the relationship. And finally, Biden was put under great domestic political pressure, and he yielded rather than stood his ground. So he looks a bit weak. 

GT: How do you evaluate the possibility of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to China this year? He said he is willing to visit China "when conditions permit." What does he mean by that?

I really can't say. As I have said, a great deal depends on how we now deal with the balloon issue. This is not a very serious issue, in my view. In fact, I would note that the US military's reaction to the balloon was very sober-minded. They said they didn't regard it as much of an intelligence threat. But it's clear that we do need some kind of meeting between the two sides to try to understand what has happened, why it happened, and see what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

GT: How do you view the connection between the "balloon incident" and Washington's previous targeted moves toward China, including reportedly reaching agreements with the Netherlands and Japan to tighten export restrictions against China's chip sector, and banning US technology exports to Huawei?

I don't think they're connected at all, except in terms of the general level of distrust of China that I mentioned. I am not sure what the content of those agreements is. They were obviously reached after pressure on both the Dutch and Japanese governments. They did agree in the end. It's not clear what they agreed to. I argued that these restrictions and other moves by the US are more likely to hurt us than China. They are, in effect, self-harm, not a wise policy. But I have to say that I'm one of the few people arguing that this is a case of self-harm in public. We're in a moment that standing up and arguing against a prevailing public opinion leads people to attack you seriously. So I think this is a bad situation.

GT: Have the so-called "guardrails" been built between the two countries? What do you think are the difficulties in how the two countries build guardrails at this time?

In effect, I think the Chinese side has said and I agree that we had guardrails. The guardrails were the understandings that we reached beginning in 1972 with the Shanghai Communique, the China-US Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations [released in 1978] and the August 17 Communique in 1982. 

We had understandings which enabled us to manage the most difficult issue between us, which is our positions on the Taiwan question. Of course, a lot of things have happened over the past 40 years. There have been changes. This is now a very dangerous situation. So I think I'm not convinced that there is an easy way to prevent this from getting out of hand, because the confrontation seems to me to be getting worse rather than better. But I hope we can avoid a conflict.

GT: Do you think the agreement in communiques has been respected by the US on the Taiwan question in recent years?

I think actually there has been a lot of slippage over the past 40 years. I remember very well what the terms of normalization were. No official relationship, no defense commitment, no troops or facilities on the island. All of these have just been to some extent violated. That is a problem. There are delicate issues as well on the Chinese side. We're in a very difficult situation, with calls for statecraft and wisdom on both sides. And I don't see that happening soon.

We are in a situation where American politicians of one sort or another like to go to the island and shake their fist at China. Then China reacts, and then they feel well, we got China's attention, so this is good. Now there are a lot of people in Taiwan who don't like being made into a platform from which American officials or legislators, in this case, can exploit anti-China sentiment in the US. This isn't good for Taiwan. It isn't good for the mainland. It isn't good, in my view, for the US. But these people are independent. They can do what they want. And I think they need to come to understand that this is counterproductive. They don't understand that at this point.

GT: Will the US give up its "strategic ambiguity" on the Taiwan question?

This is clearly under attack. I think it's a wise policy. I don't think for a moment that the issue is military; people in the mainland understand that very well, and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) plans on the basis that there would be American intervention in a war over the island of Taiwan.

I think maintaining ambiguity is politically very useful and important. I don't think the issue is whether the PLA thinks the US will not intervene or will intervene or whatever. The military always operates on a worst-case basis. The PLA must as a matter of responsibility assume that if there's a war over Taiwan, the US will join the fight. Frankly, I hope we won't, but I can't say we won't.

I don't think anybody on either side wants to go to war. The problem is that circumstances could bring us to war. I think the American people, for the most part, are very ignorant on this issue. Chinese know a lot about it because it has to do with your civil war, the fact that it didn't really end and also has to do with your history, with foreign spheres of influence on Chinese territory and so on. Americans don't know anything about this. They don't understand that Taiwan has a history, a very complex history. That history involves not just the Cold War, but things before the Chinese civil war, the Sino-Japanese war, and so on and so forth. So this is not easy to control.

GT: Some people said that the balloon incident will draw China and Russia closer. What's your comment on this?

I think China and Russia have drawn closer because the US is putting pressure on both, not because of the balloon. I don't think the balloon has much to do with it. Now, there are people in the US who mischaracterize China's position on the war in Ukraine and say that China is supporting Russia. China is not supporting Russia. China is not taking sides. 

GT: After the "balloon incident" combined with the Ukraine war's impact, what's your perspective for China-US relations in 2023? 

I would like very much to see a basis for progress, but I suspect we are in a holding pattern. I have said elsewhere and I continue to believe that unfortunately, the Sino-American split resembles the Sino-Soviet split in the sense that it was also irrational. It had to do with all kinds of things that happened, including people's temperaments and ideological issues. But it took a quarter of a century for China and Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, to find a basis for rapprochement.

I think it will be quite a while before the US and China can do the same. I think eventually we will do that because we really need each other. There are too many problems that can't be addressed effectively unless we cooperate.

And I go back to the thesis that the world wants us to cooperate. The world depends on Sino-American cooperation. Think of the issues that we all talk about, climate change, for example. But there are many others. They simply can't be addressed effectively unless the US and China work together. But we can't at the moment. That is what the balloon incident and the cancellation of Blinken's visit demonstrate. And that is very depressing. It is not something that should make anyone happy.