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Biden wants to avoid a clash with China. Can his top diplomat succeed?

The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. poses an immediate challenge for Antony Blinken on his first visit to Beijing as secretary of state

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken upon arriving in Tel Aviv earlier this week. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AP)
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to depart for China this week with a clear mission from President Biden: find a way to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship and avoid an inadvertent conflict between the world’s two largest economies.

That job just got harder following the Pentagon’s discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the continental United States — a finding that prompted the U.S. military to consider shooting it down, senior U.S. officials said Thursday, a striking development in a time of rising tension between the two powerful adversaries.

Blinken’s visit to Beijing, the highest-level meeting in China since the start of the Biden administration, was born from a conversation between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last November.

U.S. officials hoped to use the trip to set up “guardrails” that would reduce the chance of a military or diplomatic escalation, Blinken told reporters last month. The discovery of the balloon over sparsely populated Montana, home to numerous U.S. nuclear missile silos, is precisely the type of national security event Washington has wanted to be ready for — utilizing established hotlines and protocols to prevent a crisis.

But Washington and Beijing have long disagreed on the proper way to establish a formal system for managing potential conflicts.

“One of the ways you do that is making sure that you actually have good lines of communication. … That you’re putting some guardrails on the relationship, that you’re putting a floor underneath it,” Blinken told reporters last month.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken’s meetings would be about ensuring that the intense competition Washington and Beijing are engaged in “doesn’t veer into conflict.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about how the balloon incident may impact Blinken’s trip.

Republicans who control the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged Blinken to use his trip to tell “Chairman Xi and his government that their military adventurism will no longer be tolerated.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, called on Biden to address China’s “destabilizing action” and provide a briefing to the “Gang of Eight” — a group of congressional leaders in both parties who receive briefings on classified intelligence matters.

“President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy said.

In Beijing, U.S. calls for reducing tensions ring hollow in light of its continued arms sales to Taiwan and high-level visits to the island by senior U.S. political leaders, such as then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August trip — actions viewed by China as a violation of key agreements at the core of the relationship.

The prospect of a future visit by the current House speaker, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); the creation of a new China-focused committee in the House led by a hawkish Republican; and the Biden administration’s efforts to restrict China’s access to sensitive semiconductor technology have further soured Beijing’s outlook on an improved relationship.

Even Blinken’s polished diplomatic overture to find “guardrails” in the relationship is facing strong pushback in Beijing.

“While politicians in Washington have been talking big about erecting ‘guardrails’ for China-U.S. relations, they are actually doing quite the opposite as some of them are getting increasingly unscrupulous in challenging China’s bottom line and making waves across the Taiwan Straits,” read an editorial in China’s official state news agency Xinhua following Pelosi’s visit.

The threat of more aggressive and potentially deadly maneuvers involving U.S. and Chinese aircraft has risen as U.S. ties with Taiwan have grown closer, and China has responded with increasingly brazen military maneuvers. Beijing has warned there will be growing consequences for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan such as the $1.1 billion weapons package outlined by the White House in September.

U.S. officials would like to avoid clashes between military vessels and aircraft, such as a December incident in which a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane flew within 10 feet of each other, causing the U.S. plane to take evasive measures.

But Beijing sees Washington’s diplomatic overtures as a means of cementing U.S. military and political dominance in the region.

“Beijing views ‘guardrails’ as an attempt to make it safe for American military assets to operate close to China, which is contrary to their interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program.

Pentagon calls out China’s military threats as Taiwan tensions worsen

China has remained steadfast over its interpretation of suitable guardrails, which would be difficult for the U.S. administration to meet.

When Blinken raised the topic with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July last year, Wang stressed that long-standing China-U.S. agreements stipulating that Taiwan is part of China are crucial, and that without adherence to them, “no amount of guardrails would work.”

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, official visits to Taiwan such as the one undertaken by Pelosi are a “serious violation” of such rules, as are U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Since 2017, such deals total around $18 billion.

The U.S. administration has signaled to Beijing that it does not control the actions of individual lawmakers, but Chinese officials say those cautions are broadly disregarded.

“If the U.S. side wanted to end these unreasonable provocations they would,” said one Chinese official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject is considered sensitive. “That is the full story, there is no room for compromise on the Taiwan issue.”

U.S. officials have been vague about what setting up “guardrails” in the relationship would even look like, other than a commitment to increasing communication.

Militarily, the growing number of close calls increases the risk of fatal maneuvers, such as the 2001 collision of a U.S. military surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, which led to the death of a Chinese pilot and sparked an international row.

The stakes are higher today, with Xi vowing to retake Taiwan by “all necessary means” and recent warnings from U.S. military officials that a military conflict could erupt within the decade.

Some experts have suggested reviving hotlines between top political and military leaders that were negotiated during the Obama administration but have since gone dormant. Others are skeptical of their utility.

“China’s political system hampers the effectiveness of such a hotline in a crisis. No one who answers the phone on the Chinese side would be empowered to take action,” Glaser said.

She said U.S. diplomats must first convince Beijing that “implementation of guardrails/risk reduction measures serves China’s interests.”

The difficulty in doing that has resulted in the Biden administration lowering expectations of a breakthrough on the trip.

“The administration’s goals of risk reduction are pretty straight forward: Whether they’ll be able to achieve it is the real question,” said Jacob Stokes, a China expert at the Center for a New American Security who was an Obama administration official. “They are trying to manage expectations, including their own expectations about what’s possible because they’re trying something new: maintaining a stable relationship amid this intense competition.”

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.