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Tensions continue to increase between the United States and China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dave Finkelstein is following all this. He is a former U.S. Army-China specialist, now a vice president at the Center for Naval Analyses. Welcome to the program, sir.

DAVE FINKELSTEIN: Well, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Were you surprised by the Pentagon statement that a Chinese balloon seemed to be floating over Montana?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I was not surprised by the fact that the Chinese are doing this and may have done it again in the past, as the statement said, because that's what countries do. They surveil each other. But I am a little bit curious, like others are, about the timing of the announcement. As Emily said, it will certainly make an interesting talking point for Secretary Blinken, assuming that his trip goes forward.

INSKEEP: Oh, when you say you're interested in the timing, there are two factors here. One is, why did the Chinese send the balloon now? And the other is, why did the Pentagon make a big deal of it now, I guess?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I don't think anybody can answer that with high fidelity. We can only speculate. Odds are that this balloon was probably of such a size that commercial aviation at some point might actually note it and wonder what's going on. So there may have been some attempt to get ahead of that.

INSKEEP: You know...

FINKELSTEIN: We can only speculate.

INSKEEP: You know, is this moment symbolic? Because the two sides are saying, yes, we're going to talk. Tony Blinken is on his way to Beijing, but they're also continuing their strategic competition.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, this - again, this is the nature of the relationship at the moment. There are significant strategic differences between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Neither side is making a secret of that. Our - both of our strategic documents, both in Beijing and from Washington, underscore it time and again. But what's going on here is that as a result of the meeting between President Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali in November 2020, there was an agreement to at least look into starting a process of dialogue at a very high level, to at least think about what kind of processes are necessary to, as the U.S. says, put guardrails against - around this relationship to make sure it doesn't plummet even further than it has.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. So they met late last year. Diplomats have been talking. Now they'll have higher-level talks. So what things would they see it in their interests to agree on? Pretty narrow, I would think.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think the important thing is to try to find a process, a way to regularize high-level discussions so that process can take over in managing this relationship, which is - the discussions have not been high in frequency and high in productivity. So we've got to find a way to start those discussions again.

INSKEEP: When you say process, you mean they're just, like, basic issues like visas, visas for journalists, visas for other people, students in the United States from China, that sort of thing? And they're just little issues that need to be dealt with on a technocratic level. Is that what you say when you say process?

FINKELSTEIN: No, although those are important and necessary things to be working with with Chinese counterparts. It is, how are we going to communicate at the highest levels of leadership to make sure that strategic misperception does not rule the day? What types of mechanisms do we want in place that need to be either revitalized because they lapsed or created in the absence of mechanisms for the leaders to be talking to each other at a significant level? Many years ago, there were several mechanisms that were used. We've seen, for example, Secretary Yellen speaking with Liu He, her counterpart, at Davos recently. The idea that high-level members of both administrations have means of communication. And certainly, there are some things that...

INSKEEP: This is like the old Cold War idea with the Soviets. You want to make sure they're talking so there's not a misunderstanding and a calamity.

FINKELSTEIN: Yes, strategic miscalculation is probably one of the biggest problems bedeviling the relationship at the moment.

INSKEEP: You talked about miscalculation and misunderstanding strategically. Let me ask about one news development. The other day, this week, the United States announced that it has obtained the right to build, if it wants, or to access four more military bases in the Philippines, not very far from China. The U.S. already had access to some bases there. The Philippines is an ally. If people watch that in Beijing, do they see the United States strengthening its interests? Or do they see the United States preparing to threaten China in some way?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think Beijing's attention is focused laser-like on all of the progress the United States has made in getting countries in the region, allies, partners and others to understand what's at stake in the region and the U.S. enhancing its own security posture. So this cannot be a very happy development for Beijing. And if you go back to the political report that Xi Jinping gave to the 20th party congress back in October, they presented a very dire picture of China's security situation.

INSKEEP: Because the United States has lined up so many allies around China?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, that's their perspective.

INSKEEP: But you're saying that is actually correct. The United States has lined up a lot of allies.

FINKELSTEIN: Yes, the United States is working very hard to work with its allies and partners to to enhance their own defenses and to create a security architecture in the region that can preserve the peace and the stability that it has enjoyed for over four or five decades.

INSKEEP: Dave Finkelstein, vice president of the - or a vice president of the Center for Naval Analyses. Thanks so much.

FINKELSTEIN: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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