The political controversy surrounding a rumored Chinese spy balloon that was spotted drifting over the United States not only derailed the top American diplomat’s trip to Beijing, but it also poses a threat to efforts by both nations to stabilize an escalatingly tense relationship.
The American response to what seems to be an unfortunate spying operation will have long-term effects on efforts to normalize relations, which are already at dangerously low points. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is being urged by some U.S. lawmakers to hold China responsible for what authorities are calling an unacceptable violation of American sovereignty.
Antony Blinken, the secretary of state for the United States, postponed a trip that was scheduled to start on Friday. He said he would be willing to visit Beijing “when conditions allow,” but policy analysts said the administration may find it difficult to quickly resume the trip without China making significant gestures of goodwill.
China’s “laughable alibi” that the aircraft was an errant weather balloon, according to Daniel Russel, the top American diplomat for Asia under then-President Barack Obama, didn’t help.
There is no guarantee the two sides will be able to successfully revive the “Bali” momentum, according to Russel, who was alluding to the November meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Indonesia where they agreed to improve communications.
The relationship between the superpowers has deteriorated over the past few years, reaching its lowest point in decades last August when Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, visited Taiwan and prompted Beijing to conduct military drills close to the island that China claims as its own.
Since then, the Biden administration has stated that it seeks to create a “floor” for the alliance and prevent rivalry from degenerating into hostility.
However, Republicans who control the House are already putting pressure on Biden over the balloon, questioning how it was permitted to enter U.S. airspace, and are looking into potential threats from the top geopolitical rival of the United States.
Inquiring as to why the balloon had not been shot down, House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican Chair Michael McCaul accused President Obama of allowing it to pose “a direct and ongoing national security threat to the U.S. homeland.”
Although such operations in recent years have been carried out from widely acknowledged international waters and airspace, China has frequently complained about the surveillance of its expanding military by American ships and aircraft.
China’s attitude toward the balloon was also depressing. The government apologized for the “airship” that had erred while being used for scientific and other non-military purposes. However, some domestic Chinese commentators were extremely critical of the American response.
Zhu Feng, executive dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University, said in a statement prior to the State Department’s announcement that the trip had been canceled, “If Blinken were to cancel his trip to Beijing because of the balloon, I’d see it as him using that as an excuse to do what he had wanted to do anyway – not visit China.”
According to some analysts, had Blinken carried out the visit, it would have exposed the administration to more vehement criticism that its stance toward China was weak and created a negative impression in Congress, where there is bipartisan support for taking a tough stance against Beijing.
Low expectations had been set for Blinken’s visit, but he had planned to specifically bring up the cases of American citizens who, according to the United States, are being wrongfully detained in China and urge Beijing to work with the United States to stop the flow of fentanyl. Any progress made in either of these areas would have created momentum that could be carried over into other discussions.
Former White House National Security Council deputy senior director for Asia Ivan Kanapathy predicted that Blinken would find it challenging to justify a trip to Beijing unless he can secure the release of imprisoned Americans or return with another significant prize.
In order to concentrate on its economy, which has been severely harmed by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy, China also wants a stable U.S.-China relationship.
The purpose of Blinken’s trip, which would have been the first by a secretary of state to China since 2018, was primarily to figure out how to deal with potential crises in the future. The next crisis might not be too far off, as new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to visit Taiwan this year.
“Overall, I believe the Biden administration would like to reschedule because there are numerous issues at stake and a strong likelihood of a thaw. However, the balloon incident likely delays the thaw indefinitely “Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at RAND Corporation.
However, Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, claimed on Twitter that China’s balloon operation had at least given the US and China a chance to iron out the terms of engagement in space and at great altitudes, where their militaries will come into closer contact.
We shouldn’t miss this chance to significantly lower risk and stop PRC spy balloons from violating American airspace in the future, according to Hass.