Balloon Incident Highlights Fragile State of U.S.-China Relationship

After years of deepening mistrust and simmering tensions, ties between the United States and China appeared poised for a modest rebound following the meeting of the two nations’ leaders at a summit last November and recent efforts by Beijing to stabilize its relations with the world. A visit by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Beijing this weekend was expected to build on that progress.

All it took was a balloon to upend everything.

The discovery of what American military officials called a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” over Montana this week, and Mr. Blinken’s decision Friday to cancel his trip, has again exposed the fragility of a relationship between two powers locked in an increasingly tense rivalry for military, geopolitical and technological dominance.

The revelation of the balloon’s location has fueled bipartisan outrage in the United States, including calls to shoot it down, and has given the Biden administration little room to maneuver — even as China uncharacteristically expressed regret for the vessel’s appearance.

The two countries have issued competing claims about the nature of the airship. The Pentagon said it was used for “intelligence-gathering,” whereas China said it was a civilian vessel used for scientific research and that it had strayed off course.

Wang Yi, the top official in China’s foreign policy hierarchy, told Mr. Blinken in a phone call late on Friday that “China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on its website.

The brief summary of their call did not mention the balloon or Mr. Blinken’s cancellation of his trip, but suggested China’s leaders believed the Biden administration had blown the incident out of proportion.

While there has been no indication the balloon poses a serious military or intelligence threat to the United States, the symbolism of a Chinese craft drifting over the continental United States has added a new element of volatility to a relationship that’s at the core of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, rebuilding post-pandemic economies and combating climate change.

“It’s a little action with a big consequence,” Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, said of the balloon. “It’s kind of mind blowing when you look at the history of U.S.-China relations and all the different phases the relationship has been through to end up here.”

Shrinking levels of contact between the two governments in recent years has made it more difficult for them to test assumptions about each other’s intentions during diplomatic crises, she added.

In the months before the balloon incident, China’s diplomatic corps had toned down its typically acerbic rhetoric about Washington. One highlight was an appeal from the incoming Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, to build “mutual understanding and affinity between the two peoples” in remarks he made last month upon leaving his post as ambassador to the United States.

China has been looking to reduce tensions overseas to focus its energy on repairing its beleaguered economy and transition out of Covid-induced isolation. Liu He, the country’s vice premier, attended the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last month, to woo foreign investment and declare that China was open for business again.

How an apparent Chinese spy balloon ended up over the United States amid such a backdrop hints at divisions within the Chinese government about its strategy toward its chief geopolitical competitor, analysts say.

“The overall direction of China’s recent diplomatic messaging to the United States has been to seek to lower tensions,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council director for China.

“The spy balloon incident is discordant with the overall messaging,” he added. “This raises questions about the quality of coordination within China’s security system.”

Mr. Hass said China’s leader, Xi Jinping, can ill afford to let Sino-U.S. relations sour even further. Managing these ties is among Mr. Xi’s chief responsibilities in the eyes of the country’s elite. Under his watch, Washington has crippled major Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei, imposed sweeping export bans on critical semiconductor technology and fortified military relationships across Asia, most recently with news this week about the expansion of American access to military bases in the Philippines.

“Secretary Blinken’s very visible postponement of his visit could generate questions internally about Xi’s capacity to manage tensions with the United States,” Mr. Hass said. “This issue already has been a soft spot in Xi’s overall résumé after a decade of historically strained relations with the United States under his leadership.”

Tensions could escalate this year. There is already a new select committee in the House of Representatives to investigate the strategic challenges posed by China. And if the new Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, makes good on plans to visit Taiwan, that could stoke the same tensions that prompted China to respond with a near military blockade when the former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi traveled to the self-governing island last year.

Still, China’s response on Friday to the balloon revelation underscored the country’s more measured tone since last year. The confrontational tack of the past, known as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, so named after a jingoistic Chinese film, would not have expressed anything close to regret for the balloon. Instead, Beijing’s admission that the vessel was Chinese, and its pledge to continue communicating with the United States, suggests a desire to press ahead Mr. Blinken’s visit.

“It is worthy of recognition that China acknowledged the balloon,” said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar who focuses on U.S.-China ties.

Other experts offered another assessment: China may have intended for the airship to be discovered to regain the initiative and gauge Washington’s resolve when tested by Beijing. The balloon’s presence sends a message that China has the capabilities to spy over the American heartland in the way many Chinese presume the United States is doing over China, or at least on its periphery with spy planes, satellites and naval patrols.

“China wants to show it isn’t inferior to the U.S., that it’s operating from a position of strength,” said Benjamin Ho, coordinator of the China program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “China is demonstrating to the U.S. that, ‘We can do to you what you’ve been doing to us for a long time.’”

Mr. Ho said news of the balloon’s flight would help Mr. Xi win points domestically with nationalists. Another view in China blames a rising tide of hawkish attitudes in the United States for an overreaction to the vessel.

“It could have been a good chance for China and the U.S. to warm relations, but this incident overshadowed it,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University. “We can see the new Congress is sharpening its knife and honing its sword for China.”

Olivia Wang contributed research and Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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