Over the past week, news networks in the United States (US) and other Western nations were dominated by coverage of a Chinese balloon making its way across North American airspace. The balloon was finally shot down by the US Air Force off the South Carolina coast.
The Chinese government maintained that the balloon was for research purposes, mainly meteorological research, which unintentionally went off course. It also expressed regret over the incident.
For its part, the US maintained that the balloon was being used for surveillance purposes. Many American politicians on both sides of the political divide were predictably incensed over the incident.
The timing of this latest diplomatic spat was bad to say the least, given that relations between the two world powers were already in the doldrums. Almost immediately, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, postponed an official visit to China, the purpose of which, incidentally, was to help to ease some of the tensions in the relationship between both sides.
The US and China have been poking at each other for some time now – militarily, economically and diplomatically. All it would take is one miscalculation or misunderstanding to lead to a full scale conflict.
Five years ago, Richard Haass, a former American diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, authored a book titled ‘A World in Disarray’. Haass argued that “The new world order depends on cooperation between the three major powers,”those being the US, China and Russia.
According to Haass, “forging stronger diplomatic bonds between China, Russia and America would do wonders for stabilizing the world order.”
Unfortunately, there is little to no cooperation between the three of them and the world is not only in disarray, but it is perhaps at its most dangerous since World War II. There are also very few prospects in the short-to-medium-term that there will be any major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and China or the US and Russia.
What this means is that even more turbulent times are ahead unless these countries decide to take concrete measures to step back from the precipice. However, restraint does not seem to be a term that either of them can readily identify with.
While they squabble, the climate change problems get more severe, the global food crisis gets worse (eggs seem to be the latest victim) and other problems multiply.
In the late 1960s, China and the United States started to think about building bridges after decades of no formal diplomatic relations. By 1971, the Chinese had invited an American ping pong (table tennis) team to visit China, an invitation which was accepted.
According to the National Museum of American Diplomacy, the visit by the Americans marked the genesis of what became known as “ping-pong diplomacy”, which helped to lay the groundwork for establishing official diplomatic relations between the US and China.
The US and China need ping pong again. Perhaps with Russia, some vodka diplomacy may suffice. Whether ping pong or vodka, most people will not be too concerned. Most of us just need some normalcy and stability to return to the world.
Of course, any thawing of the ice between the US and China or the US and Russia would not be a panacea for solving all of the world’s problems. However, it would go a far way towards addressing many of them.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.