Is a new cold war between the United States and China to be feared?

The destruction of a Chinese balloon in American airspace on Saturday, February 4, is a new tension between the two countries.

Is this a new Cold War between the two leading world powers? A return to the 1960s, when Kennedy’s United States confronted Khrushchev’s Soviet Union without direct conflict. The episode of the Chinese balloon in American airspace is one more tension in the already bad American-Chinese relations. The thesis of a provocation by Beijing is shared by many observers.

By sending a missile to pulverize the balloon that was flying over their territory – for espionage purposes, according to the Pentagon – the United States has, above all, reduced to rubble the hopes of appeasement with China.

Since then, angry comments have multiplied.

On Sunday 5 January, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Washington of having “overreacted” and said it “reserves” the right to retaliate. And then on Monday morning, in case we didn’t quite understand, a little extra layer: the American actions have “seriously affected and damaged” relations between our two countries, says Beijing. Which is a lot to ask of a balloon that is supposed to be a simple weather research device.

Anthony Blinken cancels his visit

It must be said that China did not really appreciate the cancellation in extremis of the visit of the head of the American diplomacy, Anthony Blinken. This trip would have been the first of a U.S. Secretary of State in China since 2018. It had been decided during the meeting between Joe Biden and XI Jinping in November on the sidelines of the G20 to help the two powers emerge from a phase of high tensions.

Anthony Blinken should have been in Beijing today. He was eagerly awaited, as there are many rivalries and disagreements to be resolved: the war in Ukraine, the threat of invasion in Taiwan, tensions in the South China Sea and economic issues. But for Washington, adding the subject of the balloon to this list – which in another context might have been relatively anecdotal – was not really a good idea.

For the moment, this trip is only postponed; the White House assures that the channels of discussion remain open… but it will be complicated to put the pieces together. We will also see what the analysis of the debris that has started to be recovered off the coast of South Carolina will show. In any case, this is the most acute crisis in Sino-American relations since Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer.

Republicans lash out at Biden

This balloon affair also has consequences for American domestic politics: first, it feeds a certain anti-Chinese fever in the political class, but it especially feeds the opportunism of the Republicans who accuse Joe Biden of not having been quick enough, not firm enough, “as always, when it comes to national security and foreign policy,” ironizes their representative in the Senate. “China has made a mockery of our airspace,” says Mitch McConnell.

“This balloon should never have entered the United States,” adds another elected official, Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Shooting it down “over the Atlantic is like tackling a striker on a soccer field after the game is over.

The opposition is unleashing its blows, with the aim of weakening the president as much as possible, who is due to deliver his major State of the Union address to Congress tomorrow. 

The case of Taiwan

Despite the tensions, the Chinese and Americans have never broken off the dialogue, because the two economies are very much linked. On the geopolitical level, there were already many points of contention, starting with Taiwan, which the United States promised to defend in the event of a Chinese invasion. 

Like China’s more intense military exercises, the escalation is gradual, but it is not new. Their fierce competition extends to all areas on which a state’s power depends, such as high technology. In artificial intelligence, for example, China is investing heavily with the goal of overtaking the United States by 2030.