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Little room for maneuver as US-China ties deteriorate further

Blinken met with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich security conference last month after the balloon incident, but that did not ease tensions. A source familiar with the conversation called it the most adversarial US-China engagement since contentious talks in Alaska Image Courtesy Reuters

Washington: President Joe Biden said last month after a US fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that he planned to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the episode and clear the air between rival superpowers.

Five weeks later, the call has still not taken place.

Instead, after two months of diplomatic snipers and Xi’s trip this week to Moscow where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly denounced the United States, US-China relations have slipped towards what some say it is the worst since the countries normalized relations in the 1970s.

To complicate matters further, stops in the United States next week and in early April by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who sources familiar with the planning say could meet Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a “transit” stopover in California on the way back. from Latin America.

“This is not a good time for American diplomacy,” said William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University. “The last time China and Russia were so close was in 1957, when Mao Zedong said in Moscow, ‘The east wind will prevail over the west wind’.”

Now US officials are once again asking how to reset the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

A Biden-Xi call would be an obvious first step. But despite efforts by US diplomats, sources said the Chinese had shown little interest in engaging in such a call, which would be their first known interaction since a November G20 meeting in Bali.

Blinken met with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich security conference last month after the balloon incident, but that did not ease tensions. A source close to that conversation called it the most adversarial U.S.-China engagement since contentious talks in Alaska early in the Biden administration.

The person said China refused to coordinate the meeting, forcing the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, to personally meet Wang Yi at the conference center to ask him if it will happen. would produce.

The US decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon on February 4 drew angry complaints from China and Wang called the US reaction “hysterical”.

The source said friction was also exacerbated by Biden’s State of the Union address three days later, in which he appeared to question Xi’s standing on the world stage, angering officials in Beijing.

“Name me a world leader who would switch places with Xi Jinping. Name me one,” Biden said in his speech, obviously referring to a host of domestic and foreign policy challenges facing China.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

A US State Department spokesperson did not address the Munich meeting or China’s reaction to Biden’s comments, but said the US would continue to maintain ‘open and constructive lines of communication’ with China.

“In the past, when relations suffered a major downturn, such as after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 or the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-96, the two countries made serious efforts to restore a stable base under their relations. “said Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Quincy Institute.

“Now an increasing level of suspicion, vitriol and finger-pointing dominates almost every exchange, preventing substantial engagement.”

A senior U.S. administration official said on Monday that Washington was urging China to keep communication channels open despite Tsai Ing-wen’s planned stopovers, which are sensitive given China claims Taiwan as its own.

The official said Washington was open to China’s views on whether to conduct a Xi-Biden appeal or postpone a trip to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed due to the balloon incident.

Rick Waters, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, is currently in China and a person familiar with his plans said he would likely seek to lay the groundwork for Blinken’s visit.

Some, like the Republican Chairman of the House Select Committee on China, Mike Gallagher, want a tougher line, saying Russia and China are already engaged in “a new Cold War”.

He said that to ensure that China does not follow Russia’s lead in invading Taiwan, Washington should “aggressively clear the backlog of foreign military sales to Taiwan and ensure that American hard power is capable of deterring Xi’s clear ambitions to absorb island democracy.”

However, Biden will likely find Xi emboldened in any call after a China-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and his meetings with Putin. That could make him less likely to offer concessions that could generate much-needed goodwill, said Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Lily McElwee.

Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, said the window for a Biden-Xi appeal could be “slow to open and quick to close” given that Biden will visit Japan and Australia in May for G-7 meetings and Quad countries Washington has encouraged pushing back on China’s ambitions, which will likely antagonize Beijing further.

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