- Chinese surveillance balloon threatens to derail efforts by both countries to steady an increasingly fragile relationship.
- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip to Beijing.
- This incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions.
Washington: The political controversy over a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon drifting above the United States not only derailed the senior US diplomat’s scheduled visit to Beijing, but it also threatens to derail efforts by both countries to steady an increasingly fragile relationship.
The reaction in the United States to what appears to be an ill-timed eavesdropping expedition will have long-term ramifications for efforts to normalize relations, which are already at record lows. Some politicians in the United States are urging that President Joe Biden, a Democrat, hold China accountable for what authorities describe as an egregious infringement of US sovereignty.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a trip scheduled to begin on Friday, said he would be willing to visit Beijing “when conditions allow,” but policy analysts said the administration would be hard-pressed to immediately restart the trip unless China made major gestures of goodwill.
Under then-President Barack Obama, Daniel Russel, the senior US diplomat for Asia, said China’s “laughable excuse” that the aircraft was a stray weather balloon didn’t help.
Meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping
“This incident has soured the atmosphere and hardened positions and there’s no guarantee the two sides can successfully resurrect the ‘Bali’ momentum,” Russel said, referring to the November meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Indonesia where they agreed to increase communications.
Ties between the superpowers have deteriorated in recent years, reaching their lowest point in decades last August, when then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, leading Beijing to undertake military drills near the Chinese-claimed island.
Since then, the Biden administration has stated that it intends to provide a “floor” for the relationship and prevent competitiveness from escalating into war.
Republicans, who control the House, are already working on methods to probe potential threats from the US’s major geopolitical competitor, and they have been quick to put pressure on Biden over the balloon, questioning how it was permitted into US airspace.
China claims that balloon in US airspace is a civilian airship
China's foreign ministry apologized for what it called a civilian balloon that...
CALLS TO SHOOT DOWN BALLOON
On Friday, Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul wanted to know why the administration had not shot down the balloon, accusing the president of permitting it to pose a “clear and continuous national security threat to the U.S. heartland.”
China has frequently complained about US ships and aircraft spying on its developing military, despite the fact that such operations have recently been conducted from widely recognized international waters and airspace.
China’s reaction to the balloon was likewise gloomy. The government expressed sadness that an “airship” designed for civilian meteorological and other scientific reasons had deviated from its intended path. However, some Chinese internal critics were critical of the US response.
“If Blinken cancels his trip to Beijing because of the balloon, I’d see it as him using that as an excuse to do what he had already planned to do – not visit China,” said Zhu Feng, executive dean of Nanjing University’s School of International Relations, speaking before the State Department announced the trip’s cancellation.
If Blinken had gone forward with the visit, it would have exposed the administration to more vehement criticism that its approach to China is weak, as well as terrible optics in Congress, where there is bipartisan support for a tough stance on Beijing, according to some observers.
Expectations for Blinken’s trip were low, but he planned to highlight by name the cases of American people unlawfully detained in China and to press Beijing to help in slowing the flow of fentanyl, both areas where any progress would have established a momentum that could carry into future negotiations.
Former White House National Security Council deputy senior director for Asia Ivan Kanapathy predicted a string of China hearings in Congress, making it difficult for Blinken to justify a trip to Beijing unless he can secure the release of jailed Americans or return with another substantial reward.
China, too, wants a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now abandoned zero-COVID policy.
Blinken’s trip, which would have been the first by a secretary of state to China since 2018, was considered an effort to create strategies for dealing with future crises. With new House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy expected to visit Taiwan this year, the next crisis could be just around the corner.
“Overall, I do think the Biden administration would like to reschedule, as there are many issues on the table and a real chance for a thaw. But the balloon incident probably means the thaw is postponed indefinitely,” said RAND Corporation Indo-Pacific analyst Derek Grossman.
However, Ryan Hass, a Brookings Institution China researcher, said on Twitter that China’s balloon operation had at least provided the US and China a chance to hammer out rules of engagement in space and at high altitudes, where the two militaries will come into increasingly close contact.
“We should not squander this opportunity to materially reduce risk and also prevent future violations of U.S. airspace by PRC spy balloons,” Hass said.
Chinese spy balloon changes course
Chinese spy balloon is now flying eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300...