Unexpected events have an uncanny knack of creeping into long-term stories. Such is the case with the sudden cancellation of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long planned and eagerly awaited trip to Beijing during February 5-6. My new book, Accidental Conflict, warns of the ominous progression of conflict escalation over the past five years — from trade war, to tech war, to a new cold war. The Blinken response to a Chinese spy balloon hovering over US missile sites in Montana has cold war written all over it.
There is a striking sense of déjà vu with one of the more famous incidents of Cold War 1.0 that took place some 63 years ago. In May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by USSR air defenses deep in Soviet territory. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was charged and convicted of espionage, and then incarcerated for nearly two years before being released in a celebrated prisoner swap for the Soviet intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel.
The May 1960 U-2 incident dealt a major blow to the US-USSR relationship, which appeared to be thawing after a Khrushchev-Eisenhower summit at Camp David in September 1959. Shortly after the US plane was shot down, the Soviets rescinded an invitation for a long scheduled and eagerly awaited Eisenhower trip to Moscow and a frosty cold war relationship quickly went from bad to worse. This deterioration, of course, cascaded into the next US administration of John F. Kennedy, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By many accounts, the 1960-62 interval was the most dangerous phase of Cold War 1.0.
While an intelligence gathering balloon poses a different threat than an actively piloted spy plane, such a comparison is splitting hairs. Just as the US initially denied the intelligence gathering purpose of the top-secret U-2 aircraft, the initial statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims the balloon is a “civilian aircraft designed primarily for meteorological study.” Unexplained is China’s interest in meteorology about 60,000 feet above one of America’s strategic missile installations in Montana. The Chinese statement blamed the intrusion on unexpectedly stiff winds and sent a message of regret over the intrusion into US airspace. The US State Department saw it differently and was quick to announce the cancellation (as diplomats, they call it a postponement) of Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip, that was widely lauded to include a meeting with Xi Jinping.
Like the thaw in Cold War 1.0 that appeared to be on track just prior to the U-2 incident of 1960, many have expressed similar hopes today. In large part, that stems from the Biden-Xi Bali summit of last November and the follow-up mission of Blinken. For me, that was wishful thinking. The balloon incident occurs at an exceedingly treacherous point in the US-China conflict. Trump’s tariffs and aggressive use of the entity list to blacklist Chinese companies were bad enough. But these actions have been followed by the recent escalation of US tech sanctions on China, the creation of a new select committee on China in the US House of Representatives by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, and a new military agreement with the Philippines — to say nothing of aggressive industrial policy actions aimed at China through the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.
But another big shoe is about to fall – the promised upcoming trip to Taiwan by the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. We know how China responded when Nancy Pelosi went to Taipei last August. I would think that would be the minimum of what we can expect from China next time. From a cold war perspective, that raises the toughest question of all: As the U-2 incident led to the Cuban missile crisis, could the balloon over Montana create a serious flashpoint over Taiwan? In other words, as Accidental Conflict hints, could Taiwan be the next Cuba?