Biden dropped a Chinese spy balloon. But he did not break bilateral relations
This latest incident literally touches the United States, as the uninterrupted coverage of the balloon’s presence in American airspace and its destruction captured on live video made the Chinese threat real to many.
“It was quite a big success for the [public] trust factor in US-China relations – Chinese espionage has never been more at the center of the American public consciousness,” said Lyle Morris, former country director for China in the office of the Secretary of Defense. “Whether there were still people on the fence about a Chinese threat or not, it’s pretty much been foreclosed.”
In the short term, GOP lawmakers argue Biden needs to be tougher on China. A senior State Department official threw a similar stern line at Beijing, calling the balloon incursion a “clear violation of our sovereignty” and saying it was “unacceptable” during a Friday press briefing.
China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday protesting Biden’s decision to shoot down the surveillance balloon. The ministry called the downing of the airship “a gross overreaction and a serious violation of international practices” and warned that China reserved the right “to provide other responses if necessary”.
But the incident is likely to worsen, rather than break, the bilateral relationship.
Regardless of the rampant political rhetoric on economic decoupling, the two countries are too interdependent to opt for a drastic downgrade in bilateral relations. The Biden administration and senior Chinese officials, including Supreme Leader Xi Jinping, have recently stressed the need to improve the tenor of US-China relations. And historically, other U.S.-China incidents that rocked the relationship eventually faded in favor of renewed, albeit strained, ties.
In recent weeks, Xi and his aides have launched a charm offensive aimed at easing tensions with Washington as they battle a Covid outbreak and an economic downturn. The Chinese government was even preparing to host Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a now-postponed visit in which he would have potentially met Xi.
And because the discovery of the airship is a premature embarrassment for Xi, it could limit China’s response to the bombing. In fact, Beijing signaled its desire to prevent the balloon incursion from severing ties with a rare expression of “regret”, though it also claimed the object was a derailed weather balloon.
In comments to reporters on Saturday, Biden said he had ordered the ball down “as soon as possible” on Wednesday. Ultimately, authorities decided to wait until the object was above water to avoid “damaging anyone on the ground,” the president said.
Biden did not respond to a question about how the decision would affect U.S. relations with China. Foreign affairs watchers, however, predicted that Beijing and Washington would try to play down the fallout.
“The Biden administration has already signaled that it will seek to postpone Blinken’s visit when conditions permit,” noted Daniel Russel, a former senior Asia official in the Obama administration who has close ties to the US. Biden aides. “If that closes the book on the incident, both sides can get back to business. If the Chinese instead choose to play the wronged victim or retaliate, we could find ourselves climbing the ladder of disaster.” ‘escalation.
If the United States recovers the remains of the balloon and proves that it is a spy device and not a weather tracker, it could further embarrass Xi and lead him to back down. Biden could use that wreckage “to humiliate China or as bargaining chips in private discussions,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment.
The United States and China have a history of recovering from relationship-disruptive incidents that initially outraged the other.
On May 7, 1999, for example, a US-led NATO air campaign bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring 20 other Chinese citizens. Although the United States has insisted the bombing was a mistake, to this day it is a source of painful feelings in China, where a 2021 state media account the called it “barbaric”. Still, the incident has not deterred efforts to improve relations.
In 2001, an American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea and landed on the Chinese island of Hainan. China detained the 24-member crew of the US plane for 11 days, during which the pilot of the fighter jet is believed to have died. After several days of tense negotiations, the two countries negotiated an agreement based on an American expression of regret for the incident.
Even years of growing tensions over Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own, have not severed ties. In 2013, when Biden was vice president, Beijing declared the launch of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea. Biden went to China with the message that Washington would not recognize the area; American military planes were already crossing it without Chinese authorization.
Biden has also repeatedly said the administration will send US troops to help Taiwan if China attacks, although official US policy is more ambiguous.
And when the then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, the Chinese government reacted with fury, conducting days of live-fire military exercises around the island. Beijing has also suspended bilateral military dialogues and joint efforts on China’s role in the US opioid crisis.
But three months later, Biden met Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Indonesia, and both pledged to try to ease tensions in order to “manage this competition responsibly.” The Chinese government has also recently shifted to a softer diplomatic tone – an effort by Beijing to reduce US-China tensions as it grapples with a disastrous Covid outbreak and economic downturn.
The balloon incident is likely to ripple heavily on Capitol Hill, where there is a bipartisan consensus that China poses a long-term threat to American power.
“Congress will almost certainly hold hearings on the administration’s response, which will extend the life of this story and raise important questions about the effectiveness of the Biden administration’s China policy,” said Craig Singleton. , senior researcher on China at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
The possibility of Blinken continuing his trip to China was mooted before it was ultimately postponed after administration officials realized the visit would be overshadowed by questions about a balloon that might still hover above the ground. American.
“The purpose of the trip was to seek a ‘floor’ in the relationship and to explore potential areas of cooperation for mutual benefit,” said a US official familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity. due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The ball, however, “would have dominated all conversations”, the official said. “It was better to postpone until a better time, and the interagency was fine with that.”
It’s unclear when Blinken will reschedule his trip. The fact that Chinese officials are agreeing to take him in quite quickly could be a sign of how quickly they want to put the ball incident behind them.
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.