“Balloongate” is not the start of another Cold War

An errant Chinese high-altitude balloon wandered into US airspace and was shot down a couple days ago. The internet, especially Twitter, is collectively losing its mind over this. The right-wing punditry, predicably, is calling this a precursor to war. Somehow Biden is enabling China in regard to this balloon, yet just four months ago, in October, imposed major restrictions on semiconductor imports to China out of concern for national security:

Companies will no longer be allowed to supply advanced computing chips, chip-making equipment and other products to China unless they receive a special license. Most of those licenses will be denied, though certain shipments to facilities operated by U.S. companies or allied countries will be evaluated case by case, a senior administration official said in a briefing Thursday.

Biden’s restrictions are actually more onerous than the restrictions under Trump.

But even the center/left has jumped on the hype bandwagon, with Noah Smith proclaiming we’re living through a new Cold War:

So Cold War 2 is a reality, and we’re all living in it right now. If history is any guide, expect at least the next three decades to be defined by mutual U.S.-China distrust and tensions rather than re-engagement or cooperation against shared challenges. China’s leaders may wish they could take a mulligan and reset things to the trajectory of 2015 or 2017, but eventually they will realize that they can’t, and their tone will likely turn frosty again. Meanwhile, Americans will likely continue to see events like the Spy Balloon in a more negative, threatening light than they would have in earlier decades.

It’s worth noting that pundits have a terrible track record of anything China, whether it’s countless failed predictions of China’s economy collapsing or predictions of war, or military escalation between China and Taiwan (or other countries involving China). The Economist, a purportedly reputable publication, in 2004 (yes, 18 years ago) was already warning of a ‘hard landing’ for China. Or a PBS story from 2002: Why The Taiwan Issue Is So Dangerous. Remember all those predictions and warnings of geopolitical crisis due to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan? No one even talks about that anymore. [In fairness, Aljazeera was right.]

This blog, to its credit, has been consistently right about China:

Not Worried about China-US Relations or Crisis (2021)

So Much For That China Economic Crisis (2015)

China not a threat to US (2020)

China’s ‘Fake’ Economic Data: Why I’m Not Concerned (2019)

The threat is Islam, not China (2018)

Here is a rundown of why this is not Cold War 2.0 (some of which Noah buries in the last paragraph of his article):

1. China is much more interested in copying/appropriating America’s consumer-capitalism culture than rejecting it, whether it’s copying the iPhone, Disneyland, landmarks, brands, etc. or having lots of billionaires and being a major part of globalization. The USSR, by contrast, avowedly rejected American culture and individual wealth creation, and was more economically insular overall.

2. China has a lot to lose economically by initiating any sort of war/conflict with Taiwan, due to the high likelihood of the US getting involved. The risk/reward is not worth it. The USSR by comparison was much weaker relative to the US and had less to lose.

3. When it comes to expansion, China flat out sucks compared to the USSR. The last time China expanded was as far back as 1997, when it peacefully acquired Hong Kong from the British. So much for imperialism. By comparison, the USSR was an entire federation composed of 15 constituent republics, and sought to expand its influence (or at least the ideology of Marxism), as far as Cuba, South America, etc. China seems less interested in spreading Marxism worldwide.

4. China is very conservative, defensive, and risk averse, which is related to #2. (Why did it build such a huge wall to begin with?) It does a lot of saber-rattling, which the media misreads to mean conflict is imminent, but never actually takes the next step. This stems from China’s cautious technocratic leadership, compared to Stalin’s more impulsive militaristic style.

Yes, China rejects ‘the West’s’ notions of human rights and individual freedoms. To some this is unsettling, and understandably so, but this does not imply that it will lead to war either or collapse of economic or diplomatic relations (and the US has engaged in quite a bit of surveillance on its own citizens as well).

Sure, maybe China’s economy will eventually crash or there will be war, but the media needs to give it a rest and just admit they have no clue and are just guessing. Just because something seems plausible does not mean it’s probable. Nuclear war is one of those things that seems plausible given how many nuclear weapons there are and how easy to would seem for for a nuke to eventually find its way into the hands of someone willing to detonate one, (and the useless doomsday clock asymptotically approaches 12:00), but it has not happened. Maybe one day we will wake up (or not) to the faint glow of nuclear armageddon, but what is gained by constantly being reminded by the media of it. It’s more profitable for the media to keep everyone in a permanent state of fear and anger, than to have to admit they are as clueless as anyone else.