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Where U.S.-China relations stand after suspected spy balloon was shot down


Well, for more context, we're going to be joined now by Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University. She's also a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. State Department. Welcome.

JESSICA CHEN WEISS: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So what do you make so far of this whole controversy over the Chinese balloon and the U.S. decision to shoot it down?

WEISS: First, I think it's really unfortunate the timing in particular of this event meant that Secretary Blinken postponed indefinitely his trip to Beijing, which was even aimed at defusing some of the tensions and putting a so-called floor under the relationship. Beyond that, I think it's, you know, kind of emblematic of where we are in the relationship, where there are activities that we are mutually doing to each other that both of us find pretty alarming. But the actual extent of the threat has, unfortunately, some cases, you know - and this one in particular, blown wildly out of proportion, if you'll forgive me for using the word there.

CHANG: No pun intended.

WEISS: (Laughter).

CHANG: Well, before Secretary Blinken cancelled his planned visit to Beijing, as you mentioned, how would you have characterized U.S.-China relations?

WEISS: I would say that we're in a pretty steep downward spiral, which really began under the Trump administration, something that the Biden administration inherited and, you know, really characterized by a sort of tit-for-tat action-reaction cycle where each of us, you know, Beijing, Washington, trying to really outcompete the other, to get a leg up and ensure that we're not vulnerable, you know, to each other. And so I would say that coming out of a meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Biden at the G-20 summit in Bali last fall, there was really an interest in - I think on both sides in seeing a little bit more stability in the relationship. That was the momentum, so to speak, coming out of Bali. And this meeting really was to try to, you know, push forward there. Then it was derailed by the public firestorm over this balloon, which - you know, the timing was really bad, frankly. And I think the Chinese side blundered into this with their balloon.

CHANG: Well, can we talk about the rhetoric surrounding this balloon? Because after the balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet, the Chinese Defense Ministry said that they reserve the right to use, quote, "any necessary means" in response. What's your assessment of that language from China? Is it more just posturing? Or is that a real threat to the U.S.? What's your sense?

WEISS: I think it is somewhere between posturing and a specific threat because this incident isn't over. There's going to be the remains, the wreckage, the - you know, there's going to be a lot, I think, here, you know, that the Chinese side may feel the need to respond to. And that's even in advance of Representative McCarthy going to Taiwan, etc. And so I think that they do - you know, I think one of the risks here is that the Chinese side, for domestic reasons of their own, you know, feels pressure to respond, you know, to the shoot down of their surveillance balloon. And it's not like we don't do a lot of close in surveillance, you know, near China. And so I think there's a very real risk that they, you know, maybe not - I don't think they're going to shoot down one of our planes. But nonetheless, you know, they could do a lot more. And we're already having seen that tick up - a lot more close in harassment, unsafe encounters, you know, really designed to show their own, you know, domestic audience in China that, you know, China is not going to just, like, take this one on the chin.

CHANG: At this point, do you see a real path forward for building trust between these two countries or at least a way to decrease tensions between the U.S. and China?

WEISS: I would agree that this incident and the outcry has made it all the harder to find that pathway forward, which was already pretty narrow and shrinking. But it also underscores the stakes here that if we can't even, you know, manage a balloon, which the Pentagon assessed posed no military or even intelligence threat above and beyond what their low-Earth-orbit satellites could accomplish, then it suggests that, you know, we are really collectively, you know, in a very bad place for managing a potentially more serious incident. And so I think that a pathway still exists, but it will really require reciprocal steps on both sides to begin to not only talk about principles to manage the relationship but actually begin to think about, what are the sets of behaviors that are, you know, increasing the danger on both sides? - and that if done - ratcheted back and kind of in a reciprocal fashion, could really bolster our collective security without necessarily coming at the expense of defense and deterrence.

CHANG: Jessica Chen Weiss is a professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University and a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. State Department. Thank you so much.

WEISS: Thank you. It's been great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.