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Floating objects raise questions about surveillance, national defense and diplomacy

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

All these unidentified objects floating up in the sky are bringing up fresh questions about global surveillance, national defense and diplomacy. We've called up David Gompert, a longtime presidential adviser in all of those areas. He has served five administrations, from Reagan all the way through Obama. He was acting director of national intelligence in the Obama administration, and he's now a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Good morning, sir. It's good to have you with us.

DAVID GOMPERT: Good morning, Asma.

KHALID: So that suspected Chinese spy balloon, the one that was shot down on Feb. 4 - it led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to put off his planned diplomatic trip to China. And one of the goals of that trip was improving basic communications between the two countries. So I want to understand what is missing right now in the way that the United States and China are speaking with one another.

GOMPERT: What is missing is dialogue. The U.S.-China strategic nuclear relationship, which is stable because of mutual deterrence, but it is fraught with suspicion. If the Chinese weren't suspicious, they weren't - wouldn't be sending a spy balloon over the United States. If we weren't suspicious, we wouldn't be so worked up about the implications of the Chinese spy balloon activities. And that level of suspicion is very troublesome and potentially dangerous. What we need is not simply a hotline. We need a dialogue.

KHALID: A dialogue. You know, you mentioned a hotline, though, there. And I want to ask you a follow-up on that. There were reports that when this first Chinese spy balloon was spotted, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin tried to contact his Chinese counterpart by means of a special crisis line. He was not able to get through with success. And I wanted to understand - I mean, are both countries - do you feel that the United States and China are receptive to this kind of direct communication between top officials in moments of crisis?

GOMPERT: The short answer is no. Let me explain, if I might, Asma, what this operation by the Chinese is and what it's not. It's criminal. One can fly satellites any time for virtually any purpose as long as they're in space. But in the atmosphere, flying in another country's airspace is a crime. So we had crimes committed against us by the Chinese, and we are right to be outraged. Secondly, it's a political blunder, as far as I can see, because the Chinese should have known that at least the balloon, if not other objects, would be detected and neutralized. And that's exactly what has happened. So it's an embarrassment to the Chinese.

Why are the Chinese doing this? It's not because there's an opportunity for China to take a huge leap forward in strategic surveillance and to surpass the United States. It's quite the opposite. This reflects the fact that the Chinese are way behind the United States in strategic surveillance, and they're trying to catch up by whatever means they can, including surveillance balloons.

KHALID: You had mentioned earlier, though, this need to build dialogue, to have constructive dialogue.

GOMPERT: Yes.

KHALID: And if, you know, hotlines are not working in moments of crisis, then you sort of have to go back and say, well, how do you have these - how do you reestablish trust? And right now when you look at the relations between the United States and China, they are already strained. What are some of the roadblocks to establishing trust? How can that happen?

GOMPERT: Well, I'm not talking about a hotline. That, of course, is very important in moments of crisis. I'm talking about an ongoing dialogue about purpose. Each power assigns nuclear weapons, why it has nuclear weapons, why it has the nuclear weapons it has in order to clarify, eliminate, or at least alleviate misconceptions, address suspicions and, I believe, improve stability and security at the nuclear strategic level that way. That's a dialogue. That's a process.

KHALID: And how do you build that dialogue?

GOMPERT: Well, I think this is an opportunity. A lot of U.S. talking heads are saying we should be outraged and we should have no communications with the Chinese about this; we should retaliate in some way. I think we should do the opposite. We should insist that the Chinese join the United States in a deep and continuing conversation about the purpose of nuclear weapons so we can clear up misconceptions and suspicions which could lead to instability and even conflict.

KHALID: Thank you very much for taking the time.

GOMPERT: You're quite welcome.

KHALID: David Gompert is a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and a longtime national security expert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.