Despite intense pressure from his Republican opposition, President Joe Biden appears intent on maintaining a measured response to the Chinese spy balloon that crossed the continental United States early this month.
The approach appears calibrated to avoid escalation with a second major adversary as his administration deals with Russia’s almost 1-year-old war on Ukraine.
John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters Tuesday the balloon drama does not change the fact that the administration intends to avoid a conflict and continues to seek open lines of communication with China.
Nothing has changed about the president’s desire “to move this relationship forward in a better place than it is right now,” Kirby said.
This despite Republican demands for a tougher stance on Beijing.
“[Biden] only shot down the Chinese spy balloon after public pressure demanded it,” said John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, in a briefing Tuesday. “This is a complete violation of our integrity as a nation, and the president’s indifference and inaction showed weakness not just to China but to the world.”
U.S.-China tensions have been high since the discovery of the balloon that Biden ordered shot down on February 4. Administration officials say the device was part of an international “high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection” by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Beijing maintains it was a civilian airship used for meteorological research.
Kirby said the administration’s approach to its adversaries has not changed, pointing to the National Security Strategy released in October that identifies the main U.S. strategic challenges as competition with China and Russia in shaping the global order, while working with allies and adversaries alike on transnational problems such as climate change, food insecurity, energy shortages and inflation.
“I’m committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said in his State of the Union address this month, just days after he ordered his military to shoot down the spy balloon. “But make no mistake about it: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
Incentive to avoid escalation
Biden has incentives to avoid escalation with China. His administration is already seeking to manage the NATO response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while facing other foreign policy challenges, including North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, and a volatile Middle East following the formation of an extremely right-wing Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The administration has committed more than $27.1 billion in security assistance to Kyiv since the war started on February 24, 2022, and it is mindful not to provoke Beijing to further side with Moscow.
Beijing has spread Moscow’s anti-Western propaganda and ramped up trade with Russia, but it has not provided direct military support for Putin’s war effort — nor has it helped his government and banks to evade tough Western sanctions.
“One of the key areas where the Biden administration wants to talk to Beijing is making sure that it stays out of the war in Ukraine, that Beijing does not provide any kind of political, military support for Russia,” Erik Brattberg, senior vice president in the Europe practice at Albright Stonebridge Group, told VOA.
With China’s top diplomat Wang Yi scheduled to fly to Moscow this week and President Xi Jinping expected to follow within the next few months, analysts say the administration is left with limited options.
“The best the United States can hope for is to effectively deal with the immediate threat Russia poses and weaken Russia to the point where it cannot pose a major military threat to its neighbors, and then turn its attention to the far more serious challenge China poses,” said David Sacks, research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The biggest issue, in my view, is the stress that the war in Ukraine is putting on the U.S. defense industrial base, which is seriously unprepared for a direct conflict with China,” Sacks told VOA.
“Unless the Biden administration addresses this issue with urgency and significantly ramps up production of critical munitions and weapons, the United States will be extremely vulnerable if China uses force against Taiwan in the coming years.”
Beijing is also making overtures to another U.S. adversary – Iran. Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Tehran on Tuesday, defending the Islamic Republic’s right to safeguard its rights and interests, according to Chinese state media.
“What we see emerging is a longterm competition between the global West — U.S., EU, and developed democracies — and China, Russia, Iran, and a few other nations that resent the global West’s domination of international systems,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
Several Republican politicians have used the incident to raise campaign contributions, at once attacking Biden and Beijing, according to Pundit Analytics, which tracks communications and social-media postings of elected officials and candidates.
With Republicans helping to stoke voters’ anger, the balloon is becoming a hot-button political issue. Ordinary Americans who had been largely ignoring U.S.-China tensions are now beginning to realize what many in the foreign policy circle agree on – that the U.S. has been on a cold war footing with China for a while now, Daly told VOA.
“This is the real significance of the spy balloon — not that it poses a new threat to the U.S., but that more Americans are signing on to the ‘China Threat’ narrative that had formerly been limited to Washington,” Daly said.
Should Biden decide to run again in 2024 as his officials say he intends to, observers say the political cost of appearing soft on China will be even greater.
VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.