TRUMPeting tight, the American Right
The United States is in a major upheaval. Trump’s cabinet shake-up moves the country into an alarming direction. From the nomination of torturer Gina Haspel as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency to Mike Pompeo, former CIA Director and a vocal opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran as new secretary of state, his selection exposes the White House’s dangerous kill instincts.
An ultimatum came with the president’s appointment of John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations as his 3rd national security advisor. Bolton, who served in the George W. Bush administration is notorious for his hawkishness, with a great zeal for military action against Iran and North Korea. This rearranging of the deck chairs in the sinking empire signals the great calamity of foreign policy ahead with potential threats of war.
In this seeming free-fall toward despotism, what can ordinary people do? Tackling corruption of our political system and averting a doomed future requires us to truly understand the problems we are facing. The crisis of representation didn’t just arise with Trump, the new commander in chief. A glimpse of it was shown during the 2008 financial meltdown, which was covered up swiftly by bank bailouts and politics of ‘hope and change’. The truth is that seeds for dystopia have been inside this country all along. The roots of the issues that are now emerging in Trump’s America go back to the very beginning of this nation.
In its modern formation, the United States inspired the world with its torch of liberty and equality. At the same time, this beacon of light had its darkness within. From the onset, America contained internal contradictions manifested as the founder’s hypocrisy and the violation of its own ideals with genocide of natives, slavery of blacks and suppression of women. The Founding Fathers of the United States brought a victory of rejecting the power of the King’s monarchy and pioneered a path for one’s own self-determination. The concept of “a government of laws, not of men”was groundbreaking at that time. Yet without reconciling its own shadow, this nation of law failed to fully shield the republic from the tyranny of the Old World.
Supremacy of (t)reason
The unredeemed darkness found in America’s troubled past was a force inside Western civilization that tries to define history, subjugating other perspectives to its single vision. Europe, with its ethos of separation and objectivity set out to conquer the world, spreading its influence across many continents. This domineering power of reason found its new front of exploration in the New World.
America, driven by the monotheistic goal of Manifest Destiny, expanded its territory with brutality. It swallowed what is edible, assimilating immigrants one by one to its conception of what is civil, while spitting out those that it considered impala table, relegating them into three-fifths of a person or exterminating them from the earth altogether as savages.
This maddened head centricity was manifested in the structure of a new government. Sheldon Wolin, author of Democracy Inc noted how the framers of the Constitution created a so-called managed democracy, a system that favored elite rule and that “the American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy” (2008, p. 228).
The intellectual elites regarded the democratic majority rule as an irrational force and they feared the tyranny of popular majorities. While the faculty of reason positioned itself as a supreme force, a potential to account its autocratic power was found inside America.
The sovereign power of We the People
Expressed in the preamble of the Constitution “We the People” was faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves. This was an intention to shift from the model of government that acts as authority of their lives to one that places power in the hands of ordinary people. In this government established under the rule of the people, the source of legitimacy was not derived from a god or king, but was meant to come from people themselves.
This arrangement of governance was not granted from above. It was first demanded by those who opposed the ratification of the 1787 Constitution that lacked the guarantee of individual liberties. The proponents of the Bill of Rights articulated essential parts of the sovereign power of We the People as a freedom of expression; freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. By building upon First Amendment rights, further efforts emerged from below. From abolitionists’ defiance and the women’s suffrage movement to civil rights and free speech movements, people’s determination for individual autonomy persisted.
Assault on this power of ordinary people intensified with the rise of corporate power in the ‘60s. Manifest Destiny is now carried out with Nike’s slogan of “just do it”. With limited liability and having no human beings in charge, the abstraction of the head inside transnational corporations took flight from the communal ground, plundering their way into the globe, without ever having to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Giant corporations became a sponsor for this managed democracy, gaining control over media to manipulate public perception, keeping American voters in hostage with the lesser of the two evils charade politics.
WikiLeaks, the rise of cryptographic direct action
In the political winter of the post-911 war on terror, as fear and apathy spread around the globe, a new civic force surfaced online. The waves of whistleblowers began shedding light on the collaborative secrecy of elites that deceive and manipulate the public behind a façade of democracy.
WikiLeaks, with its motto of “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful”, opened a floodgate of a free flow of information.This world’s first global Fourth Estate embodies the philosophy of cypherpunks– a loosely tied group of online privacy advocates who saw the potential of cryptography to shift the balance of power between individuals and the state. With the idea that cryptography is the “ultimate form of non-violent direct action” (2012, p. 5), WikiLeaks founder and editor in chief Julian Assange built the system of scientific journalism that would give everyday people around the world tools to combat military might and confront the madness of fallen reason that censors free speech.
The invention of the anonymous drop box was truly revolutionary. It enabled anyone to send information securely without a trace of his or her identity. Through the robust decentralized infrastructure built around this game changing technology, WikiLeaks was able to provide unprecedented source protection in the history of journalism. Here, the organization that derived its source of inspiration in American founding ideas, freed the First Amendment that had been captured through a corporate monopoly and co-optation of the media, making it available to people all around the world.
It is through WikiLeaks’ adamant commitment to the principle of free press that former U.S. Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning was able to exercise uncompromising free speech and engage in the American tradition of civil disobedience. Manning, whom the late attorney and President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Michael Ratner described as the “conscience of our nation”, let the American public see the US imperialism in action in the Middle East.
In her request for a presidential pardon, Manning stated her commitment to the ideal of America, saying how she was willing to pay the price if it would make this country be “truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”Through her non-violent cryptographic direct action, she helped America find its conscience.
One individual’s act of courage brought another. Inspired by Manning, Edward Snowden came forward to inform people about the NSA’s mass surveillance. In one of the addresses he made, Snowden also described his act as a public service and connected it with Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience. Through his whistleblowing, the former NSA contractor defended individual privacy as fundamental civil rights for all people and tried to preserve the world where people can share creativity, love and friendship freely without every conversation and interaction being monitored and recorded.
Whistleblowers and their faith in ordinary people
From WikiLeaks disruptions to Snowden revelations, courageous act of truth-tellers renewed the faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves. Both Manning and Snowden believed in the public’s right to know and held a view that when people are informed, they can make changes and determine their own destiny.
Faith is different than mere belief. It is not about one blindly trusting or passively accepting something. Faith is an active will that requires one to choose out of themselves to believe in something. When established media and trusted institutions failed, Manning chose to put her trust in the journalistic organization that was little known at that time. When the government’s internal mechanisms of accountability were broken, combined with the betrayal of Obama’s campaign promises and his war on whistleblowers, Snowden turned to American journalists whom he could trust by his own judgment of the integrity of their work. They placed faith not in political leaders or authority but in fellow men and women.
It is to this faith in the ability for the wise and knowledgeable public to govern themselves that fearless journalism responded. WikiLeaks, the publisher of last resort kept its promise to the source by publishing full archives with maximum political impact and bringing information back to the historical record. By doing so, it has become an enemy of the most powerful government in the world, being subjected to legal and extra-legal pressure. Through honoring Snowden’s wishes, journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman broke the story of NSA surveillance and led the Guardian’s independent journalism, making the established media fulfill its duty. In the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures, when this young whistleblower was stranded in Hong Kong, WikiLeaks demonstrated its extraordinary source protection with journalist Sarah Harrison risking her own liberty to help Snowden attain asylum.
With this faith given by peers, citizens around the world who have been distrusted by their own governments and made powerless began to claim their own power. By recognizing that someone believed in them and sacrificed their lives so that they can be free, they were able to believe in their own ability to protect those they love and preserve rights that they cherish. The will to respond to this faith in one another made it possible for ordinary people to carry out extraordinary acts.
Bitcoin, Innovation without Permission
Contagious courage lit by people’s faith created a fellowship that can withstand the state violence. It began to shift the balance of power, replacing the source of legitimacy from trusted institutions to ordinary people’s trust in one another. As the network of resistance grew, new attacks emerged. Following the release of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010, WikiLeaks faced the unlawful financial blockade imposed by Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union. When this economic sanction starved the whistleblowing site, destroying 95% of their revenue, the flow of autonomy that helped the organization circumvent economic censorship came from fellow cypherpunks.
Bitcoin, as a peer-to-peer electronic cash was the holy grail of cypherpunks. With its defining feature of censorship resistance and permissionlessness, Bitcoin makes free speech an app that can be distributed across borders and used by anyone regardless of nationality, religion, race, gender or economic status. Here, imagination from computer science redeemed the reason that lost its connection to the heart, by synthesizing bits of isolated knowledge that had created separation and injustice, transforming them into a higher order of unification.
Networks of equal peers emerging around this invention opened up a new avenue of dissent in a form of decentralization. Adam Back, notable cryptographer whose work was cited in the Bitcoin white paper, described cypherpunks as “a state of mind” and explained its philosophy of “writing code” as a “proactive approach to societal change by doing: building and deploying tech – rather than by lobbying politicians or asking permission.”
This path toward decentralization was first taken by the creator of this technology. The anonymity of Satoshi Nakamoto represents the power of ordinary people. Through an act of publishing the white paper under a pseudonymous name and making the protocol open source, the mysterious author gave up ownership and simultaneously gave users control of the software, making it possible for each individual to use it as a tool to govern themselves.
What is enshrined in a piece of mathematics is wisdom of ordinary people that understands that man is corruptible, as well as perfectible and recognizes the security holes inherent in the existing model of governance that requires trust in third parties. It is the wisdom of history that teaches us how the best way to secure the system is not to have levers of control in the first place through which power concentrates, leading to despotism. With a consensus algorithm placed as a foundation, laws can be built that is more immune to man’s fallen nature. With this, idea of a government of laws, not of men can be truly realized. Governance of We the People now becomes possible, where rules of law are validated by consensus of ordinary people as opposed to elected officials having power over them.
Andreas Antonopoulos, a technologist and one of the respected figures in Bitcoin, in his talk titled “Courage to Innovate”, captured new enthusiasm and passion ignited around this technology in a phrase “innovation without permission” and connected it with civil disobedience. He reminded the audience how “almost every important innovation in history starts out being illegal or unregulated” and interesting technology started out with people who forgot to ask permission. Describing technology’s core invention as a platform to scale trust, Antonopoulos described how this is a system that makes it possible for people to make social decisions without hierarchy, whether it is government bureaucracy, corporations or any other institution. This system Antonopoulos characterized as “rules without rulers” is being built by people around the world without central coordination.
Claiming our revolutionary spirit
Our Founding Fathers, no matter how imperfect they were, brought us ideas conceived in a revolutionary spirit. The genius of the Constitution is that it makes fundamental laws and principles of government amendable. The highest law of the land preserved space for people to not accept authority imposed on them and even to revolt against it when it is necessary, by giving ordinary people means to change rules. America indeed was founded on rebelliousness and distrust of their own government, demonstrated in the Declaration that reads “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and institute a new Government…”
The government brought by our forebears not only allowed dissent, but depended on our rebellion. The realization of the Constitution as the fulfillment of ideals in the Declaration required individuals with a strong and independent mind. It demanded people to develop moral courage to defend these ideals against special interests of single groups or nations and any adversarial forces that try to deny them.
From the civil rights movement to whistleblowers at the frontier of digital liberation, we have seen the awakening of revolutionary spirit in people’s courageous civic action upholding the ideals of this country. The networks from below expands, converging together to build a new global civil society. Bitcoin developers around the world put their knowledge and skills together, making improvement proposals and fixing bugs, striving to meet the demands of all users.
Innovation without permission is enlivening entrepreneurship. Instead of waiting for problems to be solved by politicians or corporate CEOs, working class began to have faith in their ability to make changes, finding strength and resources within themselves. Around this currency, a new economy is now being bootstrapped, with startups and new businesses hiring people and providing them with skills and knowledge, while many other industries are stagnating.
Solutions to the crisis of representation are within us. Ordinary people, through freely associating with one another, can now give birth to the rule of a real democracy, securing Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness for all.
The Dissident Voice just published an earlier version of this text under the tittle: America’s Descent Into Despotism: Finding Our Source of Power Within appeared
Bulletproof Panama: An Isthmus of Stability Becomes a Magnet for Migration
On the sidewalk along Vía Argentina, one of Panama City’s busiest streets, a Colombian bodybuilder passes digital nomads from the US and Europe at laptops in a café. Beneath a statue of boxer Robert Durán, a Venezuelan professional leans out of an expensive SUV to hear a fellow Venezuelan migrant recount how she recently crossed the Colombian border through the mosquito-ridden swamps of the Darién Gap, as her child holds a bowl to collect money. A block down, a tour guide leads retired Americans scouting beach and mountain homes into an traditional eatery and introduces them to ropa vieja, chimichurri, yuca, plantains, and other Panamanian foods. Despite their differences, these foreigners were all drawn to Panama in part because in a region plagued by civil unrest, inequality, inflation, broken borders, and economic mismanagement, it is unusually safe and secure.
Panama’s currency is stable, as it uses both the US dollar and the Balboa, which is pegged to the dollar. Its political stability is partly a result of the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties it signed with the US, which guarantee Panama’s permanent neutrality—and that the US can use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality. As 72% of all ships passing through the Panama Canal are headed to or from the US, the US considers maintaining security in Panama vital to its national interest. And Panama abolished its standing army in 1990, following the lead of neighboring Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1949. The 2022 Global Peace Index ranked Panama the second-safest country in Central America after Costa Rica.
Francynat León is an English and Spanish language instructor from Venezuela who has lived in Panama City since 2014. From 1999 to 2013, she lived through the Hugo Chavez administration, which expropriated industries and destroyed Venezuela’s economy. Amid rising inflation and food shortages in the early 2000s, she began researching other countries and found Panama had both low inflation and high political stability, a rare combination in Latin America. While a “pink tide” of left-wing socialist leaders swept over much of Latin America in the 2000s, Panama has been immune, in part because of its close ties to the US. “Panama is bulletproof,” says León.
By contrast, nearby Colombia and Venezuela have long been plagued by civil unrest. Medellín and Caracas are among the world cities with the highest “extreme risk,” according to the 2022 Cities@Risk Security Index. Hence some 25% of Venezuela’s population and 5% of Colombia’s now live abroad, which helps to explain why Panama City is loaded with Colombians and Venezuelans. The number of Venezuelans in Panama further escalated last October, when the Biden administration closed the US border to Venezuelans seeking asylum. This suddenly stranded thousands of Venezuelan migrants in mid-journey in transit countries from Panama to Mexico. Prior to the change, Biden administration policies had induced a staggering 40-fold increase in US Border Patrol encounters with Venezuelans from 4,520 in FY 2020 to 50,499 in FY 2021 and 189,520 in FY 2022.
Despite its overall security, starting this past July, Panama had its first major social unrest in decades. Amid inflation due to COVID and the Russia-Ukraine War, protesters across the country blocked the Pan-American Highway, and in August the teachers’ union went on strike. But unlike some of its neighbors, Panama has no talk of civil war on the horizon, no Marxist rebel guerillas plotting in the countryside, no cartels taking over whole towns. Drug trafficking does go on here, but in isolated areas like the backstreets of San Miguelito and the distant jungle coastline of Darién province, and without the extreme violence common in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Panama is also one of Latin America’s popular destinations for expat workers and retirees from the US and Western Europe. Many come seeking some combination of affordability, a tropical climate, urban life, Hispanic and indigenous culture, and nature. Some seek a sunny paradise where they can live by the beach and go fly fishing, or sip local coffee in a mountain town while looking up at cloud forests on the slopes. And some seek simply normalcy. “America is not the same country I grew up in,” said a fellow expat teacher who, like me, has lived for several years in Panama. Like many others, he has no plans to go back.
Panama has a long history of receiving migrants from outside the Americas. Since the 16th century, it has been a “crisol de razas,” a cultural melting pot where Spanish, indigenous, and black populations have mixed. Starting in the mid-19th century, large waves of Chinese, Europeans, Barbadians and other West Indians, and South Asians arrived to build the Panama Railway and later the Panama Canal. The Chinese often intermarried with other races such that today, some estimate that 20% of Panamanians have some Chinese ancestry. Many Panamanians are a genetic mix of three or more racial groups, which helps bring society together around a common multicultural identity. The US-controlled Panama Canal Zone era (1903-1979) brought American culture and hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and civilians. And steady Jewish migrations over the centuries have led to a well-established Jewish community of 20,000, which has produced three Panamanian presidents, including the current president, Laurentino Cortizo.
In Panama City, people entering a bus or a restaurant often say “buenas,” short for buenos días or buenas tardes. Not to anyone in particular, to everyone. And someone usually says buenas back. If you sit next to a stranger, they often say “buen provecho,” “enjoy your meal.” And when they get up to leave, “permiso,” excuse me. These are signs of traditional civility and fraternity, civic virtues declining in some circles of the US, in part due to polarization promoted by social media and identity politics. While Americans tend to discuss national politics incessantly and publicly, Panamanians generally do not (although they do on the internet). In fact, it is rare to hear anyone in Panama arguing in public about anything at all. The “decent drapery of life,” as Edmund Burke put it, is still hanging. And civility and traditional values are among the reasons why many Americans are moving to Latin American countries like Panama.
In Book 8 of The Republic, Plato described an oligarchic city as “not one, but two, a city of the rich and a city of the poor, dwelling together, and always plotting against one another.” Panama City only partly fits this description. Unlike many other oligarchic societies in Latin America, despite its glaring inequalities, Panama is relatively safe, low in crime, and politically stable. But to be sure, the rich have their luxury enclaves, like Costa del Este and Punta Paitilla, and the poor have their decrepit barrios, like Curundú and El Chorillo. “This wealth dichotomy exists in many cities throughout the world,” wrote Jessica Reilly, “but in Panama City it all happens within sight of [$4.2 billion in cargo] floating past their drying laundry every year.”
Like Latin America in general, Panama is a land of contrasts, with the fourth-highest inequality in Latin America, as measured by the 2022 GINI coefficient. Sleek skyscrapers of glass and steel line Panama City’s Pacific coastline; yet there are huge piles of trash on almost every block in many central areas of the city. Panama’s postal service does not deliver mail domestically door to door; yet the country is a global shipping hub at the crossroads of the Americas and hosts the Panama Canal. Some 14,000 ships pass through the canal each year, connecting Panama to ports on every inhabited continent.
Panama is far from perfect. It is rainy for eight months of the year, service can be slow and unreliable, inequality is high, and it has a major trash problem. But many of those moving to Panama are not looking for perfect, just a stable place where there are no wars or socialist takeovers, where crime and inflation are low, the currency is stable, rent and health care are affordable, the weather is warm, the internet works, the products they need are available or can be shipped from the US via forwarding services in Miami, and people have traditional values and generally get along. Panama ticks all these boxes, promising that it will remain a magnet for migrants long into the future.
Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations
The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.
The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.
Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.
Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.
The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.
Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.
The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.
The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.
Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.
The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.
If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.
China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.
The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.
Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.
From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.
The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.
China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.
Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”
Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.
The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.
The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.
The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.
There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.
In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.
The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.
The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.
Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.
From our partner RIAC
Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?
As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap Beijing.
Brazil is Back
President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.
Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.
Lula and the West
Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue between the US and China and defining the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.
While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics” predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.
Winds of Change in Beijing
However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.
The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压，给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.
Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静；保持定力；稳中求进；积极作为；团结一致；敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.
China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.
Neutrality no more?
If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.
Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.
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