Harris surprisingly said that diplomacy would not be impacted. Really? Seriously? Has she been reading the headlines for the past week? Where has she been?
She replied, “I don’t think so, no,” when asked if the relationship between China and the United States has been affected negatively after the balloon saga.
U.S.-China: More Than a Competition
She also attempted to cool off tensions between the two powers. “We seek competition, but not conflict or confrontation…Everything that has happened in the last week and a half is, we believe, very consistent with our stated approach,” she said.
He Says She Says
However, it is still not clear what the “stated approach” is regarding China policy. Plus, relations are frosty at best. Beijing has already accused Washington of flying its own reconnaissance balloons over China. The Chinese say the Americans have sent balloons into its air space at least ten times since January 2022. The Biden White House quickly shot these accusations down. China had no evidence for the claims. These counter-accusations and “what about-ism” is a favored Chinese diplomatic tactic to attempt damage control when they are caught red-handed.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping Avoiding Each Other
It is not clear if President Biden will speak directly to his counterpart Xi Jinping about the incident. The two haven’t spoken since a November meeting at the G20 Summit in Indonesia.
That’s not all. Taiwan is always an issue that divides the two governments. Plus, Washington is concerned that China will continue to tacitly support its ally Russia during the war in Ukraine. This state of affairs is fraught with tension.
Harris’ Words Do Not Reflect Reality
With all this in mind, I’ll turn my attention back to Harris’ statements about the China relationship.
It is a poor attempt at rectifying a diplomatic situation that is going from bad to worse. It’s also surprising the White House allowed Harris to take the interview since she has “choked” in conversations with the media before during difficult queries about illegal immigration and the Southern Border.
What About Other National Security Leaders?
It raises the question about other foreign policy practitioners in the administration who are seen as more reliable voices who can better articulate the White House’s views, namely Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Blinken was supposed to travel to China before the spy balloon incident, but the trip was postponed. The Secretary of State made one key statement about the cancelled visit. “This was an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip,” he told China’s Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi.
These were direct words and showed the tension between both sides which makes it curious that Kamala Harris has struck an opposite tone – one of contrition that does not reflect the reality and seriousness of the situation.
Now Is the Time to Revise the Strategy on China
While Kamala Harris seems to have made some really strange comments about China, there are even more problems here. The Biden administration appears to be making up its tactics versus the Chinese as they go. Blinken says one thing and Harris says another.
While there is no textbook or written strategy on how to deal with reconnaissance balloons, the White House appeared confused and flatfooted during the incident. Harris has not been able to clarify the situation. She has defaulted back to a strategic competition mode between China and the United States, but the balloon shoot-down displays more of an adversarial contest rather than mere competition.
Harris Will Be in the Spotlight
Surprisingly Harris will be leading a delegation to the Munich Security Conference, a venue in which foreign and defense ministers often deliver speeches that give glimpses into their foreign policy strategy. Harris has no meetings scheduled but Blinken will likely meet with China’s foreign minister.
Biden does not appear to be clipping Harris’ wings when it comes to defense policy. He is throwing her into difficult situations and allowing her to articulate matters concerning an extremely volatile situation.
The White House can only hope that Kamala Harris will avoid her usual missteps and communication problems on the world stage in Munich.
BONUS: Kamala Harris Should Quit
BONUS: A Nuclear War over Ukraine?
BONUS: Donald Trump Looks Desperate
Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.