Spy balloon dustup sends US-China relations from bad to worse

Revelations of a global Chinese balloon spying program have upended fledgling attempts by President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to manage tensions that risk spiraling into confrontation and conflict. 

Lines of communication between Washington and Beijing remain in flux as the US has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets to take down unidentified flying objects over the U.S. and Canada over the past week. 

“Whether you call it competition or whatever, the U.S.-China relationship at the moment is bad in pretty much every possible dimension. And that includes the military one,” said Tim Bergreen, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee Democrats.

Biden has yet to address the nation on what his administration knows about the threat posed from China, and U.S. officials have dismissed questions over whether the president will speak with Xi, their last conversation occurring during a face-to-face meeting in November on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.

For Washington, the most immediate threat is Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and threats to Taiwan. And China views Biden’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense – raising the possible use of American troops – as crossing a bright red line of Beijing’s self-determination. 

The White House stressed this week it does not seek conflict with China, despite the discovery of the spy balloon.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we want to avoid a conflict with China, we’re not seeking conflict with China,” national security spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday.

Administration officials also stress that lines of communication with Chinese counterparts remain open, despite a rebuff by the Chinese Minister of Defense after outreach from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week, after the U.S. downed with an air-to-air missile the first, publicly-acknowledged Chinese surveillance balloon.  

China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has often used a strategy to rebuff American military attempts at outreach, Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“I’m not surprised that Sec. Austin’s counterpart did not pick up the phone,” Lin said.

“It shows that across the U.S. engagement with China, our military-to-military ties and relationship is relatively weak, and despite the efforts of this administration to focus on deconfliction, crisis communication with the PLA, we have not made significant progress. I wouldn’t fault that to be on the U.S. side, I would fault that to be the Chinese.”

Lin added that, “From their perspective, they have very little incentives to communicate or deconflict from us because they view our attempts to communicate with them as either allowing or green lighting certain U.S. operations.” 

Chinese officials have criticized the U.S. for downing the balloon, calling it an overreaction and maintaining their explanation that the crossing into American airspace of a “civilian unmanned airship” was an unintended, unexpected and isolated mistake. 

And Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday warned that Beijing is prepared to respond with unspecified “countermeasures” after the Commerce Department sanctioned six Chinese entities it said were related to the PLA’s aerospace programs.

Still, the administration has left open the possibility of high-level dialogue with senior Beijing officials. 

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing in the wake of the balloon’s discovery, State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said meetings between senior U.S. and Chinese officials could happen in a third-country, amid reports the secretary could meet his counterpart at a security conference in Munich on Thursday. 

“There’s rationale for both sides to move forward here because the Chinese are facing all kinds of domestic problems — many of their own making — that they need to deal with economically, demographically, and otherwise. At the same time, Biden is looking towards re-election,” Bergreen said.

He added that Biden has to “balance that off against a Congress that essentially, there’s almost no limit to how anti-China you can be on the Hill now.”

Some lawmakers have been quick to assign blame to China for three other unidentified flying objects that Biden ordered shot down over the weekend, even as the White House has said there’s no indication they are part of the Chinese espionage program. 

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said this week that China “almost certainly” launched three objects.

While the Biden administration has not drawn that conclusion, it has pointed to other worrying instances of Chinese sabotage against American allies in the tense Indo-Pacific waters.

Price, the State Department Spokesperson, condemned on Monday the Chinese coast guard’s use of a military-grade laser against a Philippine coast guard ship that temporarily blinded its crew, and reaffirmed Washington’s mutual defense pact with Manila. 

And military tensions between the U.S. and China are likely to rise higher as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is likely to visit Taiwan, which Beijing views as violating its deepest, brightest, red line. 

“The relationship, it signals just how brittle it is, and it signals how a public incident forces decision makers to take decisions that play to domestic audiences,” Comfort Ero, President and CEO of International Crisis Group, said in a briefing with reporters last week. 

“It’s because of those miscalculations and those tendencies to overreach… given how public this was, it’s not surprising that Blinken canceled his trip, not surprising that Biden reacted the way he did, but it’s also the reason why we say we need guardrails to prevent and deal with crisis management in a measured way.” 

Tags Chinese surveillance balloon Joe Biden President Joe Biden US-China relations Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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