Josh Hammer / February 10, 2023

Assessing U.S.-China Relations in the Aftermath of the Spy Balloon

The era of globalism is over; the imperative now is to decouple, reshore and renationalize.

The utterly humiliating saga of a high-altitude Chinese surveillance “balloon” successfully traversing the entire North American continent, only to be shot down off the South Carolina coast after completing its intelligence-gathering voyage, ought to serve as a wake-up call for America’s decadent ruling class. At Newsweek, Paul du Quenoy sagely compared the affair to the young West German pilot Mathias Rust’s successful 1987 landing of his small Cessna just outside Moscow’s Red Square, a similarly “irreparable blight” wherein a “sclerotic empire’s air defense systems stood powerless at the sight of an airborne foreign intruder.”

That comparison is damning, but proper. True, a different and less senile commander in chief might have — and should have — responded in swifter and more decisive fashion, but the sheer fact of the matter is that America’s geopolitical arch-foe felt emboldened to act as it did. The relevant question now presented to America’s ruling class is whether it has the humility to soberly acknowledge the fallen state of U.S.-China relations and to chart a path forward that best secures the national interest of our ailing and war-weary republic.

As Sohrab Ahmari chronicled in his most recent column for The American Conservative, post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis China has typically fallen into one of two categorical buckets: “integrationism” and “confrontationism.” But as Ahmari notes, in “horseshoe theory” of politics fashion, these two schools of thought on U.S.-China relations actually share a great deal in common with one another. The reason for that is simple: The “let China join the World Trade Organization”-style economic integrationists and the “defend Taiwan at all costs”-style foreign policy confrontationists both share an underlying conceit that we still live in a unipolar global moment of American geopolitical, economic, military and cultural hegemony.

That is a delusion, as this column argued nearly a year ago, after the Russo-Ukrainian War flared up. The unipolar moment of unquestioned American hegemony that briefly existed in the aftermath of the Cold War is, in fact, now over. Whatever our issues may be with the Beijing regime and the regnant Communist Party of China — and I have many — it is simply undeniable at this juncture that China is a great power, with an intimidating nuclear arsenal and a sprawling “Belt and Road Initiative” of global economic clout. This necessarily demands a hard-headed, “great power competition”-inspired geostrategy. As this same column nearly a year ago put it: “We must reconcile ourselves … to the inevitability of China’s continual rise and the likely return of a new Cold War-resemblant global chessboard.”

From the perspective of best securing the U.S. national interest at this stage, that “reconcil(iation)” has a host of tangible ramifications when it comes to economic and foreign policy.

From an economic perspective, the imperative is to be “hawkish” insofar as that means undoing by any reasonable means necessary the harms wrought by the neoliberal “integrationists”: decoupling as much as possible from yesteryear’s myopic trade and investment decisions, and reshoring critical supply chains and manufacturing capacities — or at least “near-shoring” them, to the extent they cannot be affirmatively reshored themselves. The promises of the neoliberals and trade globalists have simply not come to pass: Beijing is more politically repressive today than ever before, America’s productive capacities and trade deficits are as ruinous as ever, despondency-induced deaths of despair are skyrocketing in the denuded American heartland, and mass fentanyl has yielded a dystopian reality wherein over 100,000 Americans now fatally overdose from drugs annually.

The era of globalism is over; the imperative now is to decouple, reshore and renationalize. Moreover, to help undermine “Belt and Road,” the U.S. can try to enter strategic bilateral trade deals with nations that might otherwise fall to Beijing’s economic predations. The economic realm, more so than any other area, is where an ailing and decadent U.S. can still make a dent and make the Chinese Politburo feel pain — while also buttressing America’s own economic hand, in line with the national developmentalist tradition.

But in the area of foreign policy and national security, the imperative is to be sober, realistic and restrained. True, a worthier commander in chief than the doddering dolt from Delaware would have shot the Chinese surveillance balloon out of the sky the moment it crossed over into sovereign U.S. airspace. But to secure the territorial integrity of American airspace is one thing; to seek to project militaristic strength within the territorial sphere of influence of a fellow great power — again, no matter how noxious to our sensibilities such a great power may be — is something else entirely.

For example, as much as we may ardently desire preventing Beijing from swallowing up comparatively free and economically critical Taiwan — news flash: only 100 miles east of the Chinese mainland — one sober conclusion to draw from the end of the unipolar moment is the obvious geographical reality that Taiwan sits comfortably within China’s broader sphere of influence. In this sense, the twin imperatives of “economic hawkishness” and foreign policy realism dovetail nicely: the foreseeability of China’s exertion of pressure on Taiwan, and its possible full invasion and absorption of the island, ought to galvanize the U.S. to expedite the reshoring and redevelopment of its lagging semiconductor industry. The recently passed CHIPS Act, though imperfect, was a worthy (if ham-fisted) first step in this direction.

America’s ruling class, which is all too frequently entangled in an economic bed with China, far too often approaches these matters with an unhealthy dose of wistfulness. It is always far easier, alas, to act as one wishes the world to be, and not as it is. But if our self-regarding elites care about one thing, it is surely their own standing and, ultimately, their own survival. Here’s hoping they sober up on the Chinese challenge faster than the Soviets did after their own “airborne foreign intruder” incident of 1987.

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