The drama that ended up with the US shooting down a Chinese balloon that had overflown its territory shows how dangerous the world is becoming.
Even before an F-22 fighter attacked the balloon, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken cancelled a forthcoming trip to China. He had been due to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Blinken complained about a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law”. There is something ghoulishly funny about his indignation.
He represents a government that shows its respect for other states’ sovereignty by mounting drone assassinations on their territory. The US also runs, together with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, a global system of electronic espionage.
Moreover, there is an almost exact replica of this latest episode dating back to the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. In May 1960 the Soviet armed forces shot down a U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Captain Francis Gary Powers.
The US Central Intelligence Agency had been running high-altitude surveillance missions over the Soviet Union. The US lied in response to the shootdown, claiming that the U-2 was a weather plane that had flown off course.
This allowed the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to reveal Powers’ survival and the evidence he was on a spy mission. The historian Richard Aldous points out that representatives of the People’s Republic of China “are doing a passable impression of their American counterparts in 1960.
“In a carbon copy of Nasa’s statement during the U-2 crisis, Beijing has said the balloon flying over Montana was used for weather research and had strayed off course.” At that time, US president Dwight Eisenhower was due to meet Khrushchev for a summit in Paris.
There were hopes that this would lead to a thaw in the conflict between the two superpowers. But when Eisenhower refused to apologise, the summit collapsed.
Aldous comments, “the U-2 crisis marked the beginning of one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. Khrushchev pulverised President John F Kennedy at the Vienna Summit the following year, much as he had attempted to do to Eisenhower in Paris. The Berlin Wall crisis that summer and the missile crisis the following year brought the two superpowers close to a nuclear exchange.”
There had been similar hopes surrounding Blinken’s meeting with Xi. China’s international policy has shifted in recent months. Its aim seems to be to rebuild connections especially with Western ruling classes as China emerges from the isolation imposed by the failed zero-Covid regime.
Liu He, Xi’s chief economic adviser, last month told a group of top corporate executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “China is back.” But there is also a powerful lobby in the US talking up the prospect of war.
A succession of military top brass has predicted that the US and China will come to blows over the island of Taiwan. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory. General Mike Minihan, head of US Air Mobility Command, memoed his senior officers, “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
The war talk is amplified by the Republican Party, which now controls the House of Representatives. Its leader, speaker Kevin McCarthy, is planning a highly provocative visit to Taiwan. Blinken and his boss Joe Biden were probably looking over their shoulders at the Republicans when they reacted so aggressively to the Chinese balloon.
There are hawks also in China, and they will certainly use this crisis. Maybe they were behind the dispatch of the balloon at such a sensitive time, when a low-flying satellite would have been as efficient at gathering information.
Just as in 1960, this incident feeds the mutual suspicion and fear between two nuclear-armed imperialist rivals. Even worse, it comes just as the two sides in a war that pits another nuclear imperialism, Russia, against Ukraine and its Western backers, are gearing up for spring offensives.
The competition between these powers is now a global threat to humankind.